Josh Silverman

Director, Office of Sustainability Support, Department of Energy

Best known for: Silverman discovered that many of the department’s facilities were unknowingly emitting a powerful pollutant. He examined the operations at its national laboratories, production facilities and power administrations and found that little attention was being paid to the unintended releases of sulfur hexafluoride, the world’s most potent greenhouse gas.

Leading a departmental working group, Silverman identified huge gaps in air pollution controls at DOE facilities and initiated steps to prevent the discharge of these emissions. This included conducting maintenance and repairs to reduce leaks, and deploying technologies to capture and reuse these gases. The impact has been significant.

DOE officials said they have halted the release of about 1 million metric tons of greenhouse gases since 2009, the equivalent of eliminating polluting emissions from 200,000 passenger vehicles every year.

One pound of sulfur hexafluoride, an inorganic, colorless and odorless gas, is equivalent to 11 tons of carbon dioxide. Sulfur hexafluoride is used in industrial electrical facilities and in a variety of high-energy scientific equipment, such as particle accelerators and electron microscopes.

Silverman’s initiative involved recycling the leakage. For example, the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois is capturing the gas, rather than letting it vent into the atmosphere, and reusing it in electron microscopes, accelerators and other high-energy equipment.

Government work: Silverman joined the DOE in 2000 to support the implementation of a federal law to provide benefits to workers sickened by exposure to radiation and toxic materials in the nuclear weapons production system. He then served on a Senate detail in which he worked on amendments to the law. In 2002, he returned to the DOE to continue work on the radiation exposure program. In 2005, he joined the department’s Office of Environmental Policy and Assistance to work on a range of environmental and sustainability issues.

Motivation for service: Silverman came to federal service as a reformer to help the DOE transition beyond its Cold War legacy by addressing the environmental and health effects of its past actions. His motivation is now directed at helping the department minimize the environmental impact of its ongoing operations.

Biggest challenge: Communicating across the DOE’s decentralized and separate entities is most difficult. Sustainability is a team sport — no one organization owns all the pieces — so it is essential to be engaged with a wide variety of stakeholders and practitioners, some of whom are at the headquarters and some of whom are working in DOE field operations.

Quote: “I have the good fortune to work with very committed and capable people in helping protect and preserve the environment. I am able to learn, to teach and to have a positive impact — a great trifecta.”

— From the Partnership
for Public Service

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