Fresh Energy’s team of technical experts, attorneys, and advocates is working every day to speed the transition to a clean energy economy—and we’ve been doing so for 30 years. A key aspect of that work occurs via our Clean Electricity team, who is amping (pun!) up a zero-carbon electric grid through effective, innovative, and data-driven policy solutions. Allen, Isabel, J., Natalie, and Mike, our Clean Electricity program stars, sat down to tell us a little bit more about themselves and the work they lead at Fresh Energy. Let’s get to know the team!
Different stories, one goal
The Clean Electricity team, comprised of Lead Director Allen Gleckner, Senior Manager Isabel Ricker, Senior Science Policy Director J. Drake Hamilton, Policy Associate Natalie Townsend, and Senior Policy Associate Mike Schowalter, is decarbonizing the electricity sector serving Minnesota by expanding wind, solar, storage, and demand flexibility, and leading efforts to build the grid of the future. Working in tandem with partner organizations, utilities, decision makers, and the public, the team says that, although they’re aligned on a clear mission, they each have a unique story about how they came to their roles in climate and clean energy advocacy.
“In high school, we had a class with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota,” Allen Gleckner, lead director, clean electricity says. I’d been interested in social issues, and politics pretty generally.” He points out, “When I really learned more about climate change in that class, it struck me that without a livable climate, progress on anything else wasn’t really possible long term.” From there, Allen says he had some college classes that piqued more of an interest in energy as a climate solution, leading him to gravitate toward a career advancing clean energy solutions. “Ultimately, I ended up going to law school and then landed at Fresh Energy in 2014—a pivotal year for clean energy and climate advocacy in Minnesota.”
Isabel Ricker, Fresh Energy’s senior clean electricity manager, says that her interest in and knowledge of climate and clean energy is a family affair. “My parents both worked in energy efficiency and affordable housing, so I became very familiar with electricity from a young age.” Reflecting on her childhood on the east coast, Isabel shares, “I remember that, in Pennsylvania, electricity was deregulated in the late ‘90s, and I have memories of my parents shopping around for electricity at county fairs. It turned me on to the clean energy and climate space in a different way than most people probably get. Both my parents are also building performance nerds—so there were lots of home energy efficiency projects growing up.”
Isabel studied sustainable development in college and worked in environmental conservation for a time. “I quickly learned,” she says, “that I was more drawn to working in renewables and energy policy. It’s an optimistic field—it has a different energy that I like, being able to work for something.”
J. Drake Hamilton
Senior Science Policy Director J. Drake Hamilton learned about climate change when she was a geography major in college. J. credits her Dartmouth College years as a turning point in her own climate and clean energy career trajectory. “I had a dream in college where, one day, I woke up and said to myself, ‘What I want to do is help save the world.’ And I wasn’t talking about saving the planet, but about saving people.”
J.’s science expertise and interest in system dynamics led her into international energy development, where she worked for the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development on Kenyan projects, “Which I loved,” she notes. “But I reached a point where I knew it was time to go to grad school, and I ended up at the University of Minnesota, where I learned there was really something special about this state, and then moved to Washington, D.C. to teach graduate students and geography majors at George Washington University.”
By 1995, J. says she sensed that there was an opening here in Minnesota with policymakers to begin a long-term transition of the electric system from what it was to something much better. “I knew that this work would take a long time,” J. admits, “that it would be a slow burn of sorts. So, I left academia, and I came to Fresh Energy. And that was a big unknown to me, since I was the first person that [Executive Director] Michael Noble hired.” J. says that the early years were heavy on relationship building in the electricity sector, and those relationships have consistently panned out.
J. and Michael, as two of Fresh Energy’s original fearless leaders, stake their success in helping speed Minnesota’s transition to a clean energy economy on the people they’ve met and welcomed into the Fresh Energy community over the years. J. smiles when she adds: “I’m most proud that, every time I’ve spoken publicly since 1995, I’ve always detailed the science of climate change and actions needed—no matter what organization or audience I’m in front of. And my message has always been received.”
“I feel like, growing up, I mostly hung out with our pets, since I didn’t have any siblings to play with,” says Natalie Townsend, policy associate, clean electricity. “I was obsessed with any animal theme or book or movie, and that deeper appreciation of animals and wildlife helped form an ideology to care for nature and the environment, alongside all the outdoor activities I did as a kid.” She admits that climate change, however, didn’t really come to the forefront of that ideology until she was a bit older.
Over time, and especially throughout high school and college, Natalie says her eyes were opened: “Mid-way through college, I paired my social and political science studies with environmental science. It was an eye-opener for me to sustainability and climate issues. I knew I wanted to have more influence, especially in the realm of decision-making advocacy, in my career. I’m a macro-minded policy person at my core, which led me to go back to graduate school for a more climate- and clean energy-related focus. I’m always trying to think of what the root issue is. And one of the most beneficial things we can do, that reaches the root of the issue of climate change, is deploy clean energy. So, this role for me is a way to have the most influence in the industry that has the greatest ability to decarbonize our communities as fast as possible.”
Mike Schowalter, senior policy associate, clean electricity, still remembers the day his oldest sister came home from college and announced: “We need to recycle.” “My sister was partly through her first semester of college in Colorado,” Mike says. He recounts the memory as a defining moment in his own journey to the clean energy and climate spaces. “We lived near a national park at the time, and I spent a lot of time outdoors. From early on, I’ve had a natural affinity for and deep connection with the environment and natural world.”
As that natural affinity developed into a career, Mike says he was initially focused on equally important issues like land use and water quality, but eventually he began to see everything from a climate-focused umbrella view too. “I was very interested in the human impact side of things. I had lots of international experience and was sure I was going to live and work abroad. But I didn’t feel like I had any ownership of problems abroad. I felt like, if I wanted to make the world a better place, I needed to go home. I needed to help the U.S. both catch up to other places around the world and lead the way, lead by example. So, energy was kind of a natural area for me to gravitate toward over time.”
A clear North Star
Despite their different backgrounds and stories about how they came to Fresh Energy, the Clean Electricity team says they’re all aligned on their ultimate goal. “If we don’t decarbonize the grid, and don’t have that nervous system to bring renewable energy from where it’s made to where it needs to go, that is a critical gap,” says Mike. Allen notes, “Our mission for our team is clear: We want all the electricity serving our state to be carbon-free. We’re all covering different bases but shooting in the same direction. We’re lucky to have that clear, guiding North Star.”
Natalie adds, “We’re engaged in a lot of different levels and layers of grid modernization and decarbonization. We’ve got macro-focused areas like MISO, statewide focuses, broader regional territories we’re engaged with, and, even smaller than that, community aspects with utility customers. Our team does a good job of spreading our message and vision to all those different levels of influence.”
Fresh Energy has been a driving force behind the clean energy transition for 30 years, using data, science, and expert knowledge of what is possible and what is needed to shape and drive bold policy solutions that achieve equitable, carbon-neutral economies. The work that our Clean Electricity team engages in is crucial to our success—helping expand wind, solar, and storage, and other innovative carbon-free solutions, that build the grid of the future.
“We’re doing two big-picture things,” Isabel says. “We’re both trying to accelerate as much as we can the adoption and deployment of clean energy technologies we already have, since they will be the backbone of the carbon-free grid—wind, solar and storage will serve the vast majority of our energy needs going forward. We’re also working on the flip side of the market, making sure customer demand matches up with when renewables are producing. This is key to getting us to carbon-free,” Isabel says. “That piece of the pie—encouraging better balance of demand with supply—is increasingly important to our work.”
Allen adds, “We work a lot with other Fresh Energy teams to make sure that demand, for example on the transportation and buildings sides, has technologies that are optimally integrated into the system so demand matches renewable supply—so that more and more customers can take advantage of those technologies.
But none of this can happen without public support and encouragement, and the Clean Electricity team credits public will and engagement with helping drive the transition forward. J. says, “As we work on electricity generation and making the transition happen faster, we have been working hard to ensure every Minnesotan knows of the benefits of clean, renewable energy. Many people have never given a minute’s thought to electricity, so it’s important to us to communicate to our neighbors, families, companies, and policymakers that this transition is possible—because it’s already underway and already saving money and growing the economy in hundreds of communities across the country and throughout the world.”
The future is now
Last year, Fresh Energy, partners, donors, and stakeholders helped get us closer to our clean energy future. Our team of policy analysts, advocates, and regulatory experts set ambitious goals for 2021 and we’re proud of the progress we made. Allen puts it this way: “We saw many Minnesota coal plant retirement dates announced last year, and we’re looking to finalize those and see more coal retirement dates announced this year in 2022.” He adds, “Especially in our resource planning work, and in other areas, we’re continuing to push more and more for a transition from coal and other fossil fuels to more wind and solar, and overall accelerating the decarbonization of the electric sector.”
Isabel adds, “We’re also working hard on load flexibility and program interactions with Fresh Energy’s Energy Transition team. We’re striving to get more programs up and running that will help customers switch to beneficial electrification, ensure that those technologies are benefiting the grid, and save everyone money through those programs.” Check out Fresh Energy’s full list of 2021 accomplishments.
Whatever clean energy priority the Clean Electricity team is working on, all five of the team agree: They are a team of independent, evidence-based, technical experts driven by science. “As new information comes out, we adjust as needed,” Isabel says. “Sometimes that makes us way more wonky than others,” she adds, “but we’re that way for a reason.”
“Our credibility is largely based on the fact that we form our positions and advocacy around data and the best available evidence,” Allen states. Weaving these together into a compelling presentation on why we need to act now to meet this climate emergency moment is a Fresh Energy priority—one central to the work of each of our teams as we continue to welcome Minnesotans and other folks into Fresh Energy’s community. Come along for the journey as we press on toward an equitable and prosperous clean energy future that benefits everyone.
As Fresh Energy celebrates 30 years, we are shining the spotlight on the teams of staff that are carrying forward Fresh Energy’s long legacy of supporting an equitable, clean energy future for Minnesota and the Midwest.