[Last summer – 2020, during the throes of the pandemic – I was interviewed by Energy Central as a new expert in the Clean Power Community. Please view the original post on Energy Central.]
Clean power is the train that everyone wants to get onto these days. Transitioning away from fossil fuels is necessary to meet climate goals, it benefits public health, and it’s the right move for organizations looking to bolster their bottom line today and even more so in the future. But clean energy is not a new trend and it’s not something that sprang up out of nowhere, rather the push to make clean energy a mainstream goal has been many years in the making, and we have numerous early leaders in the sector to thank
for the progress that’s already taken place. Today, I’m excited to share an interview with Roger Ballentine who is one of these long-standing leaders for clean energy and overall action towards sustainability and preventing climate change.
Roger is newly a part of Energy Central’s Network of Experts, specifically as a part of the Clean Power Group. Today, Roger is President of Green Strategies Inc., but he brings with him decades of experience across a spectrum of clean power groups, initiatives, and more. His presence as a Clean Power expert on Energy Central only serves to make the community that much more connected and informed, but don’t take my words for it. Roger agreed to sit down with me for an introduction interview so the community could get to know him more as a part of our Energy Central Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series’:
Matt Chester: Thanks for joining our network expert and bringing your unique perspective and expertise to the Energy Central Community, Roger. To start, can you introduce yourself quickly so your fellow members know where you come from, your history in the utility sector, and what expertise and experience you bring to the table today?
Roger Ballentine: I’ve been in this space, which I would define as energy, energy transition, climate change, energy and environmental policy, energy and environmental business strategies and sustainable for 25 years. Early in my career, I was a partner at a big law firm in Washington DC with a very vibrant legislative policy practice, so I have been involved in policy longer than 25 years. I then went to work at the White House during the Clinton administration, where I was the President’s liaison to Congress on energy and environmental issues. Then, I transitioned over to run the White House Climate Change Task Force, which was a pretty large group of folks around the government who were detailed over to the White House and reported to me. We handled every aspect of energy- and climate-related policy development and outreach.
It’s actually that experience that led me, at the end of the Clinton administration, to decide to go into consulting. In the time that I spent working on these issues in the White House, I found and realized that the potential for the private sector to have a major impact on these issues that I cared about like climate change was profound and had tremendous, untapped potential because I firmly believed then and firmly believe now that there was significant business upside in a positive relationship between the private sector and environmental issues at large, clean energy and climate change in particular. In the early days, that was a pretty quiet street. Now, of course, it’s a vibrant part of the private sector.
Since that time, I’ve been a strategic advisor to a wide range of companies and financial institutions and investors. In the energy sector, that includes energy providers, utilities, technology providers, service providers; and then importantly, I also work with the large energy consumers and corporate buyers.
While my work has been very broad across energy and sustainability I’d say I spend more time on the electricity sector than any other. I have also been 10 years with a small private equity firm. We make investments and clean energy companies and other sustainable businesses. For the past six to seven years, I’ve co-chaired the clean energy, energy innovation, and decarbonization program at the Aspen Institute, so I’ve been involved outside of my regular business on these issues, as well as through the many Boards and advisory boards I have sat on.
MC: So you’ve spent a large amount of time not only looking to get clean energy technologies off the ground, but also in progressing energy and climate law. Between tech and law/policy, do you have a sense of which of those will have a greater impact in the next few years? And which are faces more challenges and obstacles, in your opinion?
RB: You know, actually, Matt, I’m going to go back and revise your question a little bit. I think that there’s a third piece there which is the business case. There’s the old construct about how energy innovation sits on a three-legged stool of technology, policy, and finance. I’ve got perspective and experience in all three of those things. Again, I’ve been doing policy for 30 years. And I know enough to keep up with technology and technology development. What distinguishes us from others is that additionally we bring a very sober and sophisticated business perspective to these things. I would say the question– what’s really going to drive change in the energy sector is all three: technology, policy, and finance. Sorry, it’s a bit of a cop out, but let me give you an example.
Solar is our fastest-growing sector in energy, but what caused that success? In this case, it’s all three of these things. It’s policy. Early on, federal government adopted tax credits, so the tax incentives are very important. Various states adapted renewable portfolio standards with the top-down supply-side policy mandate. Well, all of that ultimately worked in the marketplace because we combine that with the advancements in technology which you can translate into reduction in cost. The technology advancements, coupled with the policy, grew the solar sector tremendously. And what is now taking it further? What is taking it further is the demand side, such as companies to seek out and innovate in how to procure renewable energy. Now, you’re seeing a demand-side pull which takes the renewable industry beyond even where the technology advancements and the policy incentives would have taken it. It’s all three of those things in combination that are really creating the success story we’re seeing in renewable energy.
You need all three. My bias is that probably the least important of those three is technology. What I mean by that is not that there’s not tremendous innovation going on out there, but if I ask what’s the challenge today, the challenge today is we’re not even fully utilizing the technologies we have to the degree that we could and the degree that we need to. That is a function of either and probably both policy and business model innovations.
MC: I’d also love to hear more about your time as Chairman of the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton. During this time, climate change awareness and urgency did not reach as far as it did today— how did that impact the work that your prioritized in that role? And what would someone in that role today need to do differently than how you did it back in the 90s?
We were dealing with this at a time when there was no broad consensus that climate change was even real. We were pushing back against that, and we actually faced bipartisan opposition. I had some of my most fierce debates and conflicts over climate change with Democrats. It was a very, very different time. But we were committed and President Clinton was highly committed to this issue. He was way, way ahead of his time and firmly believed that while climate change was an existential challenge, it was also an extraordinary economic opportunity. But we had a really tough time convincing people of any of that, and we were facing a Republican-controlled Congress that severely limited our ability to do things, so it was a much more controversial issue in the policy and political world then than it is now.
It is also fair to say, and I think this is really what you meant with your question, that in terms of public consciousness it was not nearly as high as it is today, which was also why I gravitated towards the private sector. The few companies that were taking action were doing so in spite of the fact that there was no broad, public calling for action. That really made a light bulb go off for me as to how enlightened private sector leadership could break through the politics. And looking ahead, I saw that the political world was going to remain very much divided and complicated around this issue, and I, in a sense, lost patience for that. I said that I’m going to go where those types of debates are less important than the ones of what can we do, what are the benefits, and how do we finance it? That was in the private sector, and it still is.
MC: Another key area over the course of your career has been in assisting major corporations to increase their strategy by implementing sustainability. When making this case to companies, how much of it comes down simply to financial costs vs. benefits, and how much do you think is governed by longer-reaching or less immediately tangible goals? And how has that changed over the years?
RB: It’s a good, complex question with a complex answer. First, to say, not every company is the same. I will talk about where the leading edge, and the leading edge is getting larger, not smaller. It’s becoming the mainstream deal. There are lots of different reasons that companies adopt sustainability or climate or clean energy goals and objectives. Certainly, it helps and is important that there’s a financial case for action. The financial benefit, or more broadly, the business benefit, takes several different forms. The simplest case would be that if you make this efficiency investment, your return on that investment will be this much by this time. It’s the best use of your capital regardless of whether it’s good for the world or not, so we’ll do that. That’s fine, and that happens. Similarly, well, I can execute a fixed-price power purchase agreement for renewable energy power that insulates me from price volatility based on natural gas prices or whatever it is. Maybe there’s just a stone-cold business case there as well.
Typically, there’s more that goes into a company making sustainability and climate commitments. Some of it may be reputational, just purely branding, but again, I found very, very, very few companies that make this decision just on that basis. Increasingly, you have companies that see more than just a corporate citizenship role, but they see a strong business case to do so. As only one example, employees love it, so it helps employee retention and commitment. That’s increasingly the case as the Millennial generation becomes the largest source of workers. People want to work for companies that have these types of commitments and sense of responsibility and ability to make an impact. Is that a financial return? It’s certainly a business return and a business value return.
MC: As you’ve started to get involved with Energy Central, what do you find to be the value that the platform brings to you and to the industry? Why do you participate and stay so engaged, and how do you hope to bring value based on your experience and knowledge to fellow Energy Central users?
RB: These issues are becoming more important, not less important, but they are not becoming simpler. If anything, they are becoming more complicated. The benefit of having a platform like this where thought leaders can come and learn and share and ask questions, it’s really important, and I think there hasn’t been a real good way to do that. Is this the only way? No, but I think it’s an important contribution, so I certainly look forward to the opportunity to not only share my experience and views with people but to learn from others as well. One thing I like about my job is I learn something new every day, and we’re all going to need to keep learning if we’re going to have any success in tackling these issues because they are becoming more important and not less complex every day, so I think platforms like Energy Central is really, really important right now.