How Hard Can It Be? Willing to Take Risks Through Career Choices

Originally featured on C3E.net blog.

Ten or even five-year career goals have always seemed foreign to me. I graduated from college with a creative writing degree–writing and illustrating children’s books had been my dream–and then prolonged the work search by getting another degree in French culture and civilization from the Sorbonne (who wouldn’t want to live in Paris?). The first job I landed once I moved to Washington, DC, was serving subpoenas for a law firm. Even back then $6 an hour was not a living wage and I found myself making my own suits and not particularly liking lawyers. What to do next? I had worked for the electric utility during college as a technical writer and applied to be an innocuous sounding “service representative”. I would be in a three-year program with a test every six months and would be required to take night classes in engineering. How hard could it be?

Before the end of the three-year program, I was designing transformer and switch vaults with French drains (I knew French!) and sixteen way duct banks. I engineered circuit conversions. I wore a hard hat and carried an equipment bag to stake out projects that I had drafted onto construction blueprints (I could draw!). I moved on to commercial marketing, conducting energy audits and convincing building owners to install ice storage systems. Here I was for nearly a decade honing skills I never thought I had and having fun in the process.

The time had its challenges, such as when my boss called a staff meeting to state publicly that he hoped my pregnancy would not prevent us from making our goals. During my second pregnancy, the head of HR told me she thought it would be better for me to take the path of her sister who had kids and stay home. This was just before Clinton passed the Family and Medical Leave Act; I had just six weeks off for each child. I also really wanted to work more in clean energy and started looking around for opportunities. I found a memo in a colleague’s in-basket from a leader at a Department of Energy program that sounded interesting. I gave him a call.

This gentleman became my mentor, hiring me to run several programs through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. To be employed by the lab I had to present before a team of a dozen scientists. I was not a scientist but I did know something about creative utility rates I could tell them. Hey, how hard could it be? I was at NREL for almost a decade as well, getting my Certified Energy Manager license, starting a federal energy audit program and then a water efficiency program. A colleague of mine at the lab was leaving and the position of Manager of Government Relations would be open. I had never worked with Congress and the lab needed someone to translate the scientific programs into plain language (I could write!). That couldn’t possibly be as hard as engineering.

This was really the way my career worked. I would see an opportunity, decide that I had the skills to do it (or could get the skills if I worked hard enough), dive in, and try to have fun along the way. Not that I think I know everything, but that I have the capacity to learn. Other opportunities came my way that I took—working for a private equity firm on policy (while sourcing investments and doing technical due diligence), running a large and growing trade association, starting a clean energy and innovation policy company with several other folks. Not everything was easy. I was fired a couple of times and had to scramble for new work and heal emotionally. I have certainly had moments of self-doubt but never once thought anything was just too hard. If I were to describe what has kept me going through these thirty years working in clean energy it would be that very attitude: how hard can it really be?

 

Winding Down to Rev Back Up

As I sit at my kitchen counter listening to the needles drop off our fading Christmas tree like sleet landing on window panes, I wonder when Congress stopped absorbing water and began accepting the inability to thrive. It all still looks presentable, but with little productive outcome. So what’s a clean energy advocate to do? Perhaps stop lobbying Congress altogether and focus instead on business-to-agency and business-to-business interactions?

Perhaps there are enough laws and we need to focus instead on implementing what we already have on the books. In a way, that exercise makes us dig deep into our statutes to find out what we can get done without change. Take the EPA, for example. The agency will essentially be writing our climate legislation and calling upon clean energy innovation for solutions to our most pressing environmental issue. And the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, my personal favorite. The FERC, along with other regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Communications Commission, can open up markets by interpreting statute and promulgating rules that allow new technology participation. The Small Business Administration can assist burgeoning industries in navigating and interpreting existing policy. Even the Internal Revenue Service can make rulings based on statute that open the doors of tax policy for clean technologies.

Because DC is the home to hundreds of trade associations, ensuring that entrepreneurs are connected to the most appropriate and helpful trade groups can be enormously beneficial. Introducing foundling endeavors to larger companies and executives who can serve as mentors and guides along the way to development and, eventually, IPO. Forming coalitions of start-ups that can create their own nucleus of power with the philosophy that rising tides help all boats.

Thing is, we still need Congress to step in from time to time. We need laws clarified and updated. We need provisions extended and renewed to prevent new industries from collapsing. We need foundational policy for new enterprises that never existed previously and have no guidelines for operation. We need affirmation that our publicly elected officials who represent constituents desperate for jobs and economic growth, are engaged and learning and paying attention to what is going on in front of their eyes and in their hometowns. We do need Congress to act on clean energy. Not for everything that happens, but in really important ways that can help our national competitiveness through local growth.

So I will continue to work with Congress–explaining complex technologies in terms that a layperson can understand; introducing them to their own voters who are also clean energy entrepreneurs; demonstrating that federal programs can have positive and direct consequences on our economy and environment; and convincing them that taking a stand on clean energy is more of a patriotic value than a political statement.

In 2014, then, you may see me walking the halls of the GSA or the Pentagon, Rayburn or Dirksen. Happy New Year!

Energy Storage: the industry’s roller coaster week of tragedy and victory

This week the energy storage industry received two polar opposite pieces of news. The first was the tragic loss of Brad Roberts--decades long volunteer Executive Director of the Electricity Storage Association who managed to hold an incredibly demanding position at S&C Electric, represent the national trade association, and embody one of the industry’s most ardent missionary and champion. Brad’s lovely wife Betty was always at Brad’s side at the energy storage conferences that I can only imagine would be less than exciting for a non-aficionado. I admired Brad for his tenacity, learned from his experience, and was fond of him as a person. I will miss him terribly.

While many of us were professionally and personally reeling from this news, the California Public Utility Commission unanimously approved a target of 1.3 gigawatts for advanced energy storage. Wow. Unanimous approval. 1.3 gigawatts—without pumped hydro. I wish Brad could have seen this. He, in fact, laid so much of the groundwork for this to occur.

The energy storage industry is just getting started, too. There are currently over 300 megawatts of advanced energy storage on line with many hundreds more in the queue. Large developers like AES Energy Storage, Duke and NextEra are taking bullish positions on storage and finding ways to prove out their value to grid operations. At the moment, only frequency regulation is compensated in the organized markets, but I envision frequency response, other ancillary services and capacity to gain steam for valuation by grid operators. With states like California taking the lead closely followed by Texas, New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and others, energy storage should start getting included on the “menu” of resource options that can help meet our need for a more resilient, efficient and cleaner grid.

So in raising a glass in celebration for the California decision, cheers to you, Brad.

Race to the Top: Who’s stuck at the bottom?

As a nation, we don’t like to admit that that we pick winners and losers. But we do—and, in most cases, for good reason. Some technologies or programs have a greater probability of success. Sometimes our national priorities change. Sometimes technology breakthroughs or new information comes to light that shift the focus.

If we believe the U.S. needs to significantly increase our investment in clean energy innovation and move the nation to a cleaner, more sustainable, and more prosperous future, I think we need some new thinking.

Read more of this post

Rebuild For the Next Sandy

Check out this blog on AOL Energy, too!

After hurricane Sandy ravaged the Atlantic shoreline, my 88-year-old mother-in-law sat in her New Jersey home, unwilling to leave her things, for over a week with no electricity. Another friend of mine spent that same week waiting in gas lines to refill a generator and keep his brother’s small business going. These two examples don’t even include the truly unfortunate folks who completely lost their homes and businesses; they just lost their electric power.

There has been quite a bit of buzz about whether the “smart grid” and associated technologies and applications actually helped in the Sandy recovery efforts. They may have but I think we can do better. Read more of this post

Energy Storage Alive and Well: A123 Not Dead

Check this blog out on AOL Energy!

To borrow a phrase from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, we are not dead yet. The media has picked up on the A123 Systems Chapter 11 filing and has extrapolated it to mean that somehow energy storage is another failed Department of Energy (DOE) technology. In fact, the industry feels fine. Read more of this post

Clean energy policy: reducing climate change without the politics

This blog—and my career, frankly – has carefully steered clear of politically sensitive issues and focused instead on advocating for smart public policy. But having lived through summer after summer in Washington, D.C., with temperatures continuously climbing above 100 degrees and increasingly violent storms (with scientists echoing that things seem to be progressing more quickly then once thought), I finally am compelled to comment on the topic of climate change.

Given these circumstances, it seems that at long last, a real conversation about climate change is bound to happen. I actually think climate change policy does not have to be mired in politics, especially when the skepticism is concentrated in a small part of the political spectrum in Washington, D.C.

In 2010, I participated as part of a trade delegation to COP-15 in Copenhagen. I was then heading up the GridWise Alliance, and attended the climate negotiations to meet with other business leaders and observe the proceedings. I came away with two distinct impressions.

The first was that multi-national corporations clearly saw climate change as a business bonanza; that through developing solutions to mitigate climate change, they would profit.

The second was that many of the country delegations participating in the negotiations were there because the lives of their citizens were threatened by environmental destruction caused by climate change. They had travelled to dark, cold, expensive Denmark in December, in some cases bringing their own food to be able to afford the trip. These were their countries’ negotiators; top envoys and leaders desperate to have others listen to them and recognize the dire results that climate change had delivered to their homes. It seemed to me then that saving these countries from imminent danger—and creating a business case in so doing—were not mutually exclusive.

More savvy attendees managed their expectations. Hopes were high but despite efforts from the very highest levels, including the President, a grand deal did not emerge from those talks.  Back in the states, cap and trade legislation, which passed the House, failed in the Senate.  New legislation to address climate change has not been discussed seriously since, and the topic has become taboo in many political circles.

I think the pendulum is due to swing back.

We continue to hear reports that communities in Alaska that have existed for centuries are having to relocate because of reduced hunting and fishing grounds caused by climate change. Increased extreme temperatures and dramatic weather events have continued to wreak havoc in nearly every corner of the nation. Not a single person or someone they know has remained untouched. Whether these events can be directly attributed to climate change is still a point of discussion, but climate scientists are only more convinced that it is here and now.

Sooner or later, the federal debate on climate change will rekindle and, while legislation may look different from the Waxman-Markey bill of 2010, it will contain key elements that can drive a low-carbon energy future. State and local governments are already showing leadership by enacting climate policies; California is embarking on a cap and trade program, for example. Utilities are investing in technologies like smart grid and energy storage that can maximize the use of renewables and make fossil fuels more efficient. Technology development and deployment is continuing to create new wealth and jobs, despite the inaction in Congress.

And once that movement in Congress thaws, we can be in a position to help ourselves in so many ways. By devising an energy policy that asks—and strives to answer—the question “what do we want our country to look like in 50 years?” we can create incentives and groom markets for clean technologies, processes and applications that could significantly abate the threat of climate change. If we can articulate that vision and lay the policy foundation, investors will flock. Clean tech investment is still robust; private equity companies know there is money to be made. With a market that rewards reduced carbon emissions, investment—and profit—will only increase.

So, while the current rhetoric is often divisive and the hope of legislative action of any type seems bleak, we need to remain tuned in to the emerging opportunities for clean energy and innovation public policy.  Even in the unlikely scenario that the climate was to instantly stabilize, there is no risk (and potentially enormous benefits) to forging ahead on clean technologies.

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