FIVE WITH KATHERINE HAMILTON
CONNECTING POLICYMAKERS TO THE GRID AND CLEAN ENERGY ECONOMY
Interview by Peg Zokowski, Innovators Ink
In 2008, when I participated in the trade mission to Copenhagen at COP-15, I heard time and again from global corporations that climate mitigation would actually provide great business and economic growth opportunities. I thought to myself, why then is U.S. business seemingly so opposed to investing in these solutions? Why do our policymakers not understand the connection of new clean technologies to economic growth and environmental sustainability?
—Katherine Hamilton, 38 North Solutions
Nearly everything that Katherine Hamilton does is with the underlying goal of getting clean energy technologies into the marketplace to alleviate climate change. She is co-founder of 38 North Solutions, a young, DC-based, public policy firm engaged at a critical juncture in the energy and innovation industries. Acting as a bridge between clean energy clients and D.C. policymakers, her firm is focused on accelerating the transition from entrepreneur to market for clean energy and innovative technologies.
In addition to helping a wide range of clients navigate the public policy process, 38 North Solutions is also seeking to take a more holistic, thought leadership role in the clean energy space. Recently, the firm introduced The Clock – a quarterly report on clean energy trends measuring the industry’s progress. The “hands of the clock move backwards or forwards toward the midnight hour, when clean energy can compete head to head with fossil energy across the U.S. on cost, reliability, and quality.”
Hamilton parlays direct technology experience at a utility into her work in clean energy policy. She thinks there will be more energy storage, distributed energy resources and smart grid technologies on the grid in the future, but that tomorrow’s grid configuration will ultimately force an evolved utility model that offers consumers more choice in the process of using energy.
She became interested in transitioning from a technological background to public policy while at National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). As manager of government relations, she educated Members of Congress on NREL’s research programs, often finding that policymakers did not understand the linkage of research and development in innovation to applications in the “real” world.
ii: How did you leap from English and French degrees to being a distribution engineer and eventually, pursuing a career in clean energy advocacy?
KH: My grandfather worked as an engineer for the electric company and wanted someone to be an engineer in his family; I somehow ended up becoming that. I had dreamed of writing and illustrating children’s books but also wanted to make a living wage. One summer during college I worked as a technical writer at what was then Virginia Power, now Dominion, and was lucky enough to land a full-time spot there following graduation. The company placed me in a program that required I take a test every six months, take engineering classes at night, and learn how to design distribution systems on the ground during the day.
The commercial building boom in the ‘80’s created a huge demand on the electrical grid and the utility needed to market creative solutions like time-of-use rate structures and new technologies like thermal storage to shift the peak. I moved into commercial marketing and managed over 100 corporate clients, focusing on helping them to become more efficient.
I used my decade at the utility to the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Management Program where I started energy audit and water conservation programs for federal buildings, hired through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. I eventually became manager of government relations for the lab—by using both my communications and technical skills—to begin connecting the world of innovation to the world of policy.
ii: What keeps you up at night?
KH: Climate change. I have four children and the thought of an unsustainable planet is terrifying. What can we do to reverse the direction we are going in? What does success realistically look like? Will we ever get there? We don’t as a nation have a vision and long-term energy strategy.
I believe part of the problem is in our political cycle. Representatives are elected every two years, making it difficult for them to focus on long-term issues. Structurally, this will not change, but we do need to attempt to take a longer view. One common misperception is that clean energy is more expensive and that solving climate change will be a drain on our economy. In fact, we have a huge economic opportunity to keep innovation in this country and provide a strong manufacturing base in clean and sustainable solutions. For those who have been working in traditional energy venues, this transition could be incredibly positive.
I think we have to come at this in two ways. One, shore up Congress with facts and concrete policies that enable them to stand up to incumbents who do not want to change the path we are on. Convince them that everyone can benefit from change both economically and environmentally. Two, break down the concept of climate change so the average person doesn’t say, “Climate change is so big I can’t do anything about it.” Each citizen needs to begin noticing the environmental changes around them, such as how their garden has changed in the last few years, how much earlier the mosquitos are coming out, how storms are becoming more frequent. Then we need to give people something to act on politically—support policymakers and candidates who take our planet’s future seriously and want to combat climate change.
ii: Is there a state(s) that stands out as a leader in using renewables?
KH: California comes to mind right away. In order to get to the reductions they want, the state is using every conceivable policy path and every available clean technology. Building the value proposition for new technologies like energy storage, for example, is extremely important and California will help with this by incentivizing these systems. New York is also in a leadership role; Governor Cuomo has laid out a strong plan and vision for a sustainable energy future. Texas, while separated from the “organized” bulk power markets, has taken a pro-active position in building transmission that can exploit one of their greatest resources—wind energy.
In addition to Silicon Valley, places like Austin, Boston, Chicago, Raleigh, and Boulder have become clean tech hubs that attract innovators and investment in new technologies that can make our grid stronger and smarter. Many cities not on the “usual suspect” list are stepping up to attract entrepreneurs as well.
ii: What is hampering the development of technologies like grid-scale energy storage? How do we change that?
KH: We tend to place a lot of blame on utilities but they are hamstrung by our arcane regulatory construct in many ways. If we could change some of the metrics regulators use—add the value of reduced carbon, more resilience, increased energy security, for example—we might have better outcomes for new clean innovations like energy storage. I have been working hard to ensure that federal and state regulators get the rules right and capture the value technologies like energy storage can provide to the grid. I think we will get there and, hopefully, before the U.S. loses its foothold on the innovation.
ii: What do you think the electric grid will look like in 10 years?
KH: I think we will have a lot more “disruptive” and distributive technologies on the grid—smart grid, energy storage, demand response, and renewables. We will have a more electrified transportation system and the utility business model will change to allow for much higher consumer engagement. I am an eternal optimist and think our policymakers will evolve as well. With climate change staring us in the face, we will all be stepping up to participate in a clean energy economy.