New Mexico engineer taking on climate change is being honored

Erica Velarde says, ‘I’m a tree hugger — literally.’ As an energy engineer with Facilities Management Division of the General Services Department, she says it’s her goal to spearhead renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that will help make Santa Fe — and beyond — a safer place for future generations. Olivia Harlow/The New Mexican

When she was 26, Erica Velarde remembers looking at her 1- and 4-year-old daughters — overwhelmed by doubt, but still hopeful.

Already the first woman in her family to earn a degree, the single mother had gone back to school for a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering. She was determined to survive with the aid of welfare and food stamps en route to carving out a better life for her family.

“I wanted them to have the support, the opportunities that I didn’t have,” she said.

Fifteen years later, Velarde is an energy engineer with the Facilities Management Division of the state General Services Department, responsible for implementing renewable energy and energy-efficient projects in government building across New Mexico.

Her efforts, she said, are a way to help combat climate change and create a better future for younger generations — “my children and all children.”

Velarde’s work will be recognized Sept. 27 when she receives the Energy Manager of the Year Award at the annual New Mexico Association of Energy Engineers and the New Mexico Energy Services Coalition conference.

Though humbled by the honor, Velarde said it’s the work that matters most.

“We don’t have much time. [Climate change] isn’t a joke,” she said.

Since being hired in 2018, Velarde, 41, has launched the State Building Green Energy Project, a $31.7 million initiative to upgrade 32 buildings in Santa Fe using energy-efficient resources. Construction for the project began Aug. 1, with the end goal to convert all 750 government buildings in the state to energy-efficiency resources — ideally within the next eight years.

She said upgrading the buildings in Santa Fe will save 52 percent of the facilities’ kilowatt usage per hour and save the state 5,363 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

“People don’t realize how much these facilities contribute to carbon output in our world,” Velarde said, noting that because New Mexico is ranked among the top states in terms of solar potential — and energy efficient resources are more affordable than ever — “this is the next logical step.”

The project also will save money: Trane U.S. Inc., the project’s contractor, has guaranteed savings of at least $1.1 million a year. Velarde said after the project’s first 12 years — following the initial two-year construction — savings could surpass $1.4 million annually.

“That’s money in our pocket,” she said.

Of the 32 buildings committed to energy upgrades, such as sustainable lighting and HVAC systems, 19 are dedicated to renewable solar energy. They include the Toney Anaya Building, which houses the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, and Wendell Chino Building, home to the General Services Department.

Though Velarde, a self-described tree hugger — “Literally, I go up and hug trees” — always had a passion for the environment, she said engineering was something that fell into her lap.

While enrolled at Northern New Mexico College in pursuit of an associate of arts degree in business administration, the Santa Fe native said she took an astronomy class for fun and earned a 110 percent grade with the addition of extra credit. One day, her professor, Ajit Hira, pulled the then-pregnant Velarde aside and asked a question that ultimately changed her life: “Have you ever thought about engineering?”

Her response: “I don’t really want to drive a train.”

Recalling the moment, Velarde laughed. “I didn’t know what engineering was,” she said.

But after some research, her interest was piqued. She decided to enroll for another year at Northern, where she’s now a member of the university’s Board of Regents, to take physics and other related courses. She graduated in 2003, soon after giving birth to her second daughter, and applied to the University of New Mexico’s engineering program.

The next chapter, she said, was among her life’s hardest. She commuted from Santa Fe to Albuquerque up to seven days a week for class and group projects. Her daughters often tagged along, playing with Barbies and drawing in coloring books while she worked.

“I cried at 3 a.m. a lot,” Velarde said. “… I thought I couldn’t do it.”

But her daughters inspired her to persevere. She is now the mother of three: Arianna Gonzales, 19; Devina Gonzales, 16; and son Lucas Carrillo, 8.

“We all find ourselves in these moments when we don’t think we’re good enough, that we’re not smart enough,” she said. “But for me, I didn’t have a choice. … You have this adorable little baby looking up at you, and you think, you gotta figure it out.”

And that’s what she did.

Velarde worked for the Department of Transportation and Energy Conservation and Management Division before accepting her job with Facilities Management.

She realized just how far she’d come was when she arrived to building T-187 to interview for her current position.

At the former home of the Human Services Department, where Velarde had once gone for welfare assistance, “It hit me how many times I’d sat in that lobby, how I’d come full circle,” she said through tears. “This time, I wasn’t asking for help. I was there to do a service for others.”

Since Velarde’s arrival, she’s pushed New Mexico to join the Better Buildings Challenge, a nationwide initiative led by the U.S. Department of Energy to prioritize energy efficient buildings. She’s also served in leadership positions with the Energy Services Coalition since 2015.

Though Velarde said her recent recognition is gratifying, she credits others for her success — including Hira, her kids, and Louise Martinez, a former mentor and current director of the Energy Conservation Division, who had pushed the project for years.

“I’m most proud to accomplish this, in a sense, for her,” Velarde said, referring to Martinez.

To which Martinez countered: “If she believes in something, she’ll work to get it done. She believes in this project. And if state agencies start leading by example, others will follow.”

That’s the goal, Velarde said.

We can’t do one tiny little project and be done,” she said. “We need this to be nationwide. … I call it leading by example.”

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