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NYSERDA CEO Alicia Barton on Resilience in the Cleantech Industry

At a time when many startups are having to plan and pivot to navigate the economic downturn, we turned to a cleantech leader who’s no stranger to piloting organizations through challenging periods. 

Alicia Barton, President and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), was previously the CEO and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the Deputy Commissioner for Policy and Planning at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Assistant Secretary for Environmental Review at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, and in the private sector served as Chief of Operations at SunEdison and Counsel at Foley Hoag. Along her career path, Barton has learned what makes organizations fail, how they can succeed, and how to keep putting one foot in front of the other in the name of climate.

Barton spoke with Greentown Labs CEO Emily Reichert and the Greentown community at a Fireside Chat in May. Read a partial transcript of their conversation below.

ER: When you entered state government, you left your job at a law firm and headed to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Tell me about making that decision to jump into state government.

AB: As I got further in my career, fast forwarding from the law firm to having joined Massachusetts’ state government, it started to occur to me that it’s one thing to regulate and say, ‘Don’t do this,’ but what is the alternative vision for how we can get our energy needs met? That’s when I started to realize that my own, personal passion was a lot more about building the alternative rather than regulating or mandating the alternative. 

A lot of well intentioned advice was that it was a big mistake to leave a prestigious law firm to go work in state government. And yet, this was right around the time that Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick got elected, and I was very excited about him and the vision that he had put forth for government. 

I didn’t anticipate how truly challenging and rewarding the work was. That’s something that drives me a lot—I don’t like to be bored, that’s for sure.

ER: While you were at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, you were a big part of the Cape Wind effort—for those who don’t know, this was a, shall we say, “ill-fated” first in the offshore wind story, a project off the coast of Cape Cod. That was in 2013, and we are just today gearing up again to have the first utility-scale offshore wind project off the coast of Massachusetts. 

Tell us about the Cape Wind project. I think this is actually the subject of a Stephen Colbert skit—how did it get there, how did this happen? And what does it mean for where we are today with offshore wind?

AB: The Cape Wind project is one that highlights the ups and downs of the renewable energy industry. Cape Wind was something I started [working on] from the first day I started in state government, because Governor Patrick made clear really early in his term that he was going to do whatever it took to try to launch offshore wind. That was in 2007, and we worked on that project for all eight years of Governor Patrick’s terms.

It did not get over the finish line, for a lot of complicated reasons. That definitely felt like a huge step back for offshore wind in the United States. I thought we would not recover from that, but today offshore wind looms large as one of the significant renewable energy efforts in the country, particularly in the northeast United States. This is the single largest source of renewable energy that we can add to our grid. It could be that we were a little ahead of our time.

The Colbert Report skit was about some of our efforts related to wind energy on the land-based side. Showing how difficult these issues are, there was this false narrative out there that wind turbines were causing health impacts in abutters to the wind turbines, so a good chunk of my time at MassDEP was spent leading a state effort to debunk that. I guess it was absurd enough that Stephen Colbert picked up our MassDEP report and ran a story about it, which was certainly entertaining. Once disinformation is out there, it’s really hard to combat, even with facts and science.

You can’t just focus on the challenges. One of the things I’m passionate to talk about is how far and how fast we’ve come as an industry, which really has under-promised and over-delivered. A lot of people have been skeptical about the ability of clean energy solutions to scale for a long time, and we’re showing that it can be done. We’re not just talking about it, we’re actually doing it. But not every company, and not every individual project, is going to be the one that gets there. Those are the ones we have to watch carefully, to take away the lessons and figure out how to do it better next time.

ER: Speaking of success, I want to give you a chance to talk about your work today at NYSERDA. You moved to New York back in 2017 and got started in this role where you’re managing a $1.5 billion annual budget at an organization that is developing nation-leading policy on climate and environment. Tell me a bit about your work at NYSERDA and what you’re most proud of to date.

AB: I have not been wanting for challenging and important work since I’ve been at NYSERDA. We are the leading clean energy and clean energy innovation agency for the state of New York, and we do make significant investments in clean energy on behalf of New York residents. We are one of the largest renewable energy buyers in the country, just behind a few very large utilities.

A huge piece of what we’ve done since I got here, which I am really proud of, is that we’ve issued contracts for 6,000 MW of new clean electricity, including 1,700 megawatts of offshore wind. We really went from a place of thinking through policy to actually executing and issuing contractual commitments that developers can then take and build these projects.

ER: I do want to focus on the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which I know you had a big hand in. Tell us about what that legislation mandates and what goals New York has set.

AB: It is a really significant piece of legislation that I think is among the most aggressive pieces of climate legislation that’s been adopted by any large economy in the world. It requires essentially decarbonizing the entire economy by the middle of the century, 30 years from now. It requires that we fully decarbonize the electric grid by 2040, and that the electric grid be 70 percent comprised of renewable energy by 2030.

It wasn’t a light lift to sell this on a statewide basis to legislators. We made the case that this is what we have to do for the long-term protection of our communities and our environment, and our economy. This is what we need to do to be ahead of the global transition that’s happening, so that we can capture the economic benefits and not be on the economic downside of a transition that outpaces us.

One other thing that’s really interesting about this law is that it has a clear focus on the disproportionate impact that our energy choices in the past have had on disadvantaged communities and says that’s going to be a central focus of the state’s climate efforts going forward.

ER: I want to spend a bit of time on what’s next. COVID-19 has had a huge impact on New York and New York City, like it has here in Massachusetts. How are you anticipating that this will impact things on the clean energy front for New York? Certainly there are headwinds there, but do you perhaps see opportunities that could be pursued in this time?

AB: There certainly are headwinds, and I don’t want to sugarcoat them. Obviously, this pandemic has been a huge blow to every sector of our economy, and clean energy is part of that. We had to fairly aggressively restrict construction of clean energy projects, which was heartbreaking for somebody who has spent their entire career trying to get those projects started and built and completed. But it was the right thing to do, and we have had to, of course, put public health and safety as our first, second, and third priorities.

We have to not let this daunt us over the long-term. We have to figure out how to be resilient and try to pivot our approaches. We’ve been making a number of changes to our program offerings to try to help companies—we’ve accelerated milestone payments, we’ve waived certain requirements for onsite work, we’re trying to be flexible on deadlines. All of that will help. It won’t solve the underlying problem, but we’re trying to act as nimbly as we can and do what’s in our power to help companies and workers.

I do think entrepreneurs need to be aware that this financial crisis has left a huge hole in state and local budgets, and that is going to prove a challenge for certain clean energy efforts. Entrepreneurs should look at how to manage that and how to pivot around that, or if they have a solution that can address it, that’s a great opportunity as well.

Longer term, I’m certainly optimistic that clean energy can get back to what it was, which is a leading growth sector for our state’s economy, and can help lead the economic build-back as we go forward.