6 Questions With an Energy Efficiency Expert

October 7, 2023

Tom Sahagian is working on new products that could help advance electrification in more buildings. 

What is your current work?

These days I mostly work for New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and Columbia University.  My NYCHA title is Temporary Employee, which is not particularly revealing; my CU title is Lecturer, Masters of Sustainability program, School of Professional Studies.

It may sound odd to say so, but the work the sustainability group at NYCHA is doing is cutting-edge and very exciting.  We’re partway through the testing phase of a window-based heat pump product that exists because NYCHA challenged the industry to develop it.  If these new heat pumps perform the way we hope they will, it will not only be a boon to NYCHA and other public housing authorities looking to electrify, but we believe it will also offer a lower-cost alternative to market rate buildings as well. 

NYCHA is also challenging the appliance industry to develop a battery-assisted electric stove, but that’s another story.

At Columbia I teach Analysis for Energy Efficiency.  I just started my 4th semester and it has been quite an interesting experience for me.  My students are from all over the country and all over the world, which makes for a very stimulating classroom.

What inspired you to pursue a green career?

The first book I ever bought, in 4th grade, was Solar Science Projects by Dan S. Halacy (I still have the book). I was immediately fascinated by the idea of solar energy, and it has stuck with me ever since.

What are the 3 most important skills to have to do your job?

In no particular order:

1. Fire in your belly about sustainability. If you’re not motivated, you won’t have much of an impact.

2. Endless curiosity about everything (with the corollary of being unafraid to admit when you don’t know something). If you’re not curious, you won’t ever learn enough to have much of an impact.

3. Decent people skills. Because no matter how right you may be about a given issue, if you rub people the wrong way they will often ignore whatever you have to say.  FYI: I’ve learned this the hard way. Some folks might tell you I haven’t learned it yet.

What is the best part of your job?
Meeting and working with equally-committed people on projects that matter, and learning new things almost every day.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

See item 3 above.

What trends in your industry are you most excited about?

There’s a lot going on all over the world in terms of new technology.  I love new technology as much as the next geek, but what is much more exciting to me is that more and more people seem to believe that climate change is anthropogenic and that we, as a species, have to act fast to forestall its worst effects.  

Until everyone starts pulling in the same direction, there may not be enough time to make a large enough dent in the problem.  But at least more folks seem to be pulling in the right direction and fewer in the wrong one, so it gives me hope. 

Editor’s Note: You can watch Tom’s presentations at previous Forums on heat pumps here and here.