Green Career Profile: Alison Kling

May 12, 2010

Alison Kling, Assistant Vice President of the Energy Policy Department, NYC Economic Development Corporation. Alison, thank you for speaking with me. Now what does that job title mean? What do you do – what does your job entail? EDC is an economic development organization, doing a lot of development, planning and real estate transaction services, and our group – there are seven of us – focuses on energy policy. We’re the advisors to the Mayor and City government on New York City energy policy. So basically that’s everything from energy efficiency and clean supply policy initiatives to representing the City in regulatory cases in front of the New York State Public Service Commission, and working with the utilities. A lot of it is working with the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, working on the PlaNYC energy initiatives. We helped write the energy chapter of PlaNYC and now we’re in the implementation phase, so that’s also everything from supply to regulation to public and private sector energy efficiency to fostering the renewable energy market and making it stronger in the city. In a nutshell that’s what we’re doing – and it’s a lot of policy work and then also project specific things that support that policy and research, and studies and outreach. So for a typical day, what would you do? Within our group we have a smaller team that works specifically on energy efficiency and clean energy. So that’s both the private sector and within the public sector. EDC manages a lot of property in the city, as part of our economic development work, for example the Brooklyn Army Terminal or the cruise ship piers, there are a lot of business areas that we manage. We also do many development projects for instance at Willets Point, Coney Island, and Hunts Point. EDC wrote the Hunts Point Vision Plan back in 2005, (that’s where all the food markets are). We’ll incorporate energy projects into those projects; for instance we did an energy strategy study at Hunts Point. My specific role is to work on energy efficiency and clean energy projects at our facilities, and to create and implement strategy for energy efficiency at EDC buildings and properties. We’re trying to support the Mayor’s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in City buildings 30 percent by 2017. So that’s part of PlaNYC right? Yeah. The overall city goal is 30 by 30, but to push ourselves and walk the walk. The challenge is to city buildings and operations to reduce our own emissions in 10 years 30 percent, so by 2017. The mayor actually put aside 10% of the city’s annual energy budget, which amounts to about $100 million per year to fund energy efficiency projects and renewable projects in city buildings. That’s great. It seems like NY is a good place to be – that Mayor Bloomberg is very forward… Yeah, it’s a lot of top-down really forward thinking and leadership. It’s a pretty exciting time. It is an exciting time. So you talked about some of the current projects you are working on. What else is exciting right now? So what’s also really exciting is a lot of the renewable stuff that we are doing. Everyone wants to talk about renewables – those are the cool projects to talk about. One of the really exciting things is the Solar America Cities project… this is what we had talked about a lot during the panel… Right because you and I met at the solar panel… Solar panel… So to speak… (Laughs) So that’s the grant program through the Department of Energy. That’s the Federal level of support, which is really great. That’s the technical support and the grant funding. We’re working with the Mayor’s Office and with the CUNY Center for Sustainable Energy on a series of projects under that grant. One of which is we’re working with Con Ed on how to best connect solar onto their grid, so they’ve become a very strong partner. We’re also looking at a lot of possible financing options, technical options, and other ways we can help the solar market. So that’s exciting to work on. We work closely with Con Ed on a huge range of issues: a lot of regulatory stuff, a lot of transmission projects, a lot of the renewable projects. Con Ed right now, they’ll probably be having some energy efficiency programs of their own. There’s the state Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard that the Governor established in 2007. That set a target to reduce statewide energy consumption 15% by 2015. That’s the “15 by 15” goal, and that kind of matches up with the 30 by 30 goal, it’s just cut it in half. The proceeding to meet that Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard is currently going on at the Public Service Commission to try to achieve those targets and set up new energy efficiency programs throughout the state. So NYSERDA and Con Ed and all the other utilities have been putting in proposals for programs. There’s a lot more funding coming down that way. We work with Con Ed on a lot of those issues. It seems like with the change in administration and the stimulus money coming through, there are a lot of exciting opportunities right now. Yeah, definitely. How long have you been working here? Three years in June [2009]. I came here right out of Grad school. I had a big career shift. I used to work in publishing. I was a literature major in college, I thought I’d go into something with books. It turned out I didn’t really like it that much. I’d always had an environmental interest, but had no science background, so I was looking around, and having moved to New York City started looking at planning programs. So I went to the NYU Wagner School for planning. I did that part time, ended up going there full time for the last part, and then got very lucky and landed here right after graduation. Ok, so how long was that program? It’s two years if you go full time, I took three just because I was part time for a while, while I was still in my old job. I worked, and then finally decided I couldn’t handle my old career anymore, and just went to school full time to finish it out. And then I started here in June of 2006. Was something like this a goal of yours or were you just trying to change directions? I was just trying to change. I knew I wanted to get into something more – you know it sounds cheesy, but – more socially beneficial. Something I could actually care about and be invested in. I mean every job has its day-to-day irritations but I found that if you actually care about it, it’s much easier to get through those challenges. And in my old career I just didn’t really care that much. This is getting me into an area where I have strong feelings and can be passionate about the work. That was really the push. It wasn’t a specific energy job. Planning is a great degree and it’s also difficult because it can push you in so many different directions: you can go into transportation, you can go into affordable housing, you can go into development, you can go into financing, you can go into energy. So it kind of opens your eyes to all these really cool opportunities but you have to pick one. And this just came up as a really great opportunity here. In your Masters degree studies in urban planning did you have to be more focused? I had a focus on environmental and infrastructure issues. So you took classes on sustainable development and more environmental policy issues. Not too much of it was focused on actual energy issues. So this job was completely learn on the job, you know incredibly steep learning curve, and it still is: every day it’s sort of ‘gotta research this and learn that and that and that.’ I think any job in the sector will be like that – you’ll just have to be a quick learner and pick it up. Now do you think it would be possible to work here if you didn’t have the masters degree, or if you didn’t have, say, an undergraduate degree that was applicable? Yeah, I think if you have the work experience, certainly. The school definitely helps in giving you a background but really where you’re going to learn what you need to learn is on the job, or working real life experience. So I think if someone’s worked in the energy sector before, if they’ve done work on energy efficiency, that’s going to set you up, especially if you know in real life how everything interacts and who the different people are and who the stakeholders are. Especially if you want to work in government, you have to have a good sense of how the political scene is, and how to maneuver around in that arena. I think that’s sometimes almost more valuable. I mean school helps; if you don’t have a financial background it can help give you that base, or it can help give you a background on what the big policy issues are and background on what other places have done, but I don’t think it’s the end all be all answer. The people working for GreenHomeNYC, some of us have degrees in, say, urban planning or architecture, while some of us are coming from a completely different field, for example I’m in entertainment. We’re all trying to figure out the best way to get into a green career. Would you recommend going to get a masters degree in something applicable? I think it depends. If you are completely changing your career I would think about it, I mean that’s what I had to do. I think it’s good to do what you’re, doing, like going out and volunteering and working with these programs, so you’re already getting to know what the landscape is. I would find it hard to totally transition from one job to another, if one is completely unrelated. So I think it can help. Of course this year I’m sure is a really hard year for people applying to schools. I also think the volunteering helps ‘cause it gives you a better idea of where you want to go after school and how you want to use it. I mean going into school I was just like ‘I need to change my career now’ and grasping at straws a little bit. I didn’t have a complete focus on it. It ended up working out, but it’s probably an advantage if you know: ‘I want to work in sustainable development’ or ‘I want to work in transportation’ or ‘I want to work in energy.’ If you’re totally changing directions I think schools going to help. Both as a way of changing direction and learning what you need to? Yeah, it can expose you to a lot of different areas, and you also meet people who are doing the same thing and the professors usually have pretty good connections and can help you out. In your mind, who would be the ideal fit for this company? The people who work here work really hard. Someone who has a bit of background, who knows who the players are, what the regulatory landscape is. Also how energy efficiency, renewables, how that works, some sort of technical… not background, but just have a basic sense of how that all fits together. Obviously the regular clichés you know, a fast learner, writes well, can really pick things up. I think one of the biggest challenges here is keeping things moving. You really have to be persistent in keeping projects or policies going. You’re going to come up against barriers, whether it’s just the processes you have to go through or pulling stakeholders together. I think one of the biggest skills you can have is being able to pull various groups together, and convincing people, and getting buy-ins, and just moving things forward and having the patience to push that through. Coordinating efforts from different companies or groups or organizations into one movement? Yeah that’s why you really have to know – ‘I’m going to work with this group and this is what their goals are, and I’m going to work with this group over here and this is what they’re really working for and how can we get them both to buy in and see that this policy or program will benefit everybody or how it’s good for the group in the long term.’ And also everyone is so busy you really have to be persistent in making sure you can get your ideas heard. So in your small group you’re both developing policies and then trying to find people to support them and push them through to completion? Yeah, it could also be actually working on specific projects, which we can use that to support our energy policy to say ‘look this is how we can do it’ and we’re going out to the private sector and we’re saying ‘this is something you can use in your world, we’ve done it here, here’s an example.’ So a lot of times the policies and projects fit together. Is that rambling enough for you? It’s great. It sounds very interesting and it’s definitely an interesting time to be here. You are learning every day. You get a pretty strong background but you are pretty much picking things up every day. One of the things I’ve learned is that you can’t be afraid to ask questions or don’t be afraid to seem like you don’t know everything because no one knows everything. And usually if you ask a question the person next to you will be like ‘thank god they asked about that because I didn’t understand how that worked.’ How much do you think the pace of change is accelerating in say, the last year, given that there’s mounting evidence of climate change, a new administration – is stuff really going a lot faster now or is it almost always very fast paced? It’s always fast paced. Everyone is really excited about the new administration. Especially on the renewables side, the stimulus package came out with a lot of really good financing help with all the tax credits and funding coming through so I think that’s going to be a really good vehicle to push the industry forward. And just in general you see, people – they get it now. It’s not going to slow down. So it’s fast paced now but if anything it’ll get faster. Are you trying to shape public opinion or just to create the policies so that that’s the way it would be done whether people agree with it or not? That’s more the side you’re on, right, to get legislation passed? Yeah it’s mostly legislation and policy support that can encourage… you know whether it’s working on the right incentives to get the private sector to come around and make it easier for people to put in these energy efficiency investments along with mandates to force them to do it. And then there is a component of PlaNYC that is green education. I don’t know if you’ve seen the little PlaNYC birdie, the GreeNYC campaign. On the bus stop shelters they’ll have little ads in there, or streetpole banners, they have the cute little GreeNYC bird who tells you how to conserve energy. That’s definitely a huge component because especially when you’re working with some company who owns a lot of buildings – a lot of the work we do is outreach to the real estate sector – how can you work with them to educate and help them do that. But there are a lot of tenants out there who need to be educated as well. It’s hand in hand. We wish we had the bandwidth to do everything. Aside from attending a school program, in terms of expanding one’s knowledge on sustainable energy policy and economic policy, what other resources would you recommend? Well, there’s the USGBC NY chapter (US Green Building Council). You guys. I would say the LEED program. If anyone is interested in green building or just sustainability in general they should look at taking the LEED AP test or just looking that over. There’s the Green Drinks social networking event. What’s a great book you’ve read in the last year? Cradle to Cradle. It’s really good. It’s kind of a concept book about the way we make and use things. Obviously it’s the play… instead of cradle to grave. It’s about making things that are supposed to be reused, and how in our culture now it’s so disposable, and we throw everything away and we don’t think about it, and things are designed to just break and be thrown away. Anything else you’d like to add? I think it great that you guys are doing this. My one parting word would be: it is possible to get into this area.  You really have to educate yourself and work at it, but even now in this job market that’s so down, I would encourage people to keep working at it. Because I think it’s an area that’s only going to get bigger. Obviously you need to have the enthusiasm and passion for it, but you also need to be focused on which area you’re in and really dive in and learn everything you can about that sector and it’ll work out if that happens. Interview conducted by Nick Goldsmith.