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  • Writer's pictureBen Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Kateri Callahan of CMC Energy Services

Welcome to our fifth Common Sense Colloquy, a Q&A with Kateri Callahan, the new President and CEO of CMC Energy Services and former President of the Alliance to Save Energy. RENEWPR President Ben Finzel had the privilege of working with Kateri twice on groundbreaking communications campaigns in support of the Alliance to Save Energy’s work on home and transportation efficiency.

Kateri is a recognized and respected leader on energy efficiency. To paraphrase the Barbara Mandrell song, she was energy efficiency when energy efficiency wasn’t cool. Indeed, her work advocating for and advancing energy efficiency policy was instrumental in building the awareness and respect for energy efficiency that exists today. This month, we asked Kateri to tell us about her new job and to share some advice with us about how to communicate about this important energy solution.

Our thanks to Kateri for sharing her time and insight with us – and you.

Q: You were president of the Alliance to Save Energy for 14 years and you've just joined a leading energy efficiency business as chief executive. Tell us about your new job.

A: I am now running CMC Energy Services, a mission-driven company with a 40+ year track record of helping families and businesses save energy and money on their utility bills. Our heritage is very special and unique. CMC was created by a woman pioneer in energy efficiency, Doris Ikle, and the company has always been woman-owned and woman-led. We have grown to more than 225 employees and we are doing business with our utility and other partners in seven states. We provide a wide array of energy efficiency services from program design and implementation to quality control and quality assurance to all utility customer segments: residential, income-eligible, small business and large commercial and industrial. The largest segment of our business is with those that need help the most, the income-eligible utility customers. This year we will conduct at least 47,000 energy audits of income-eligible households helping them to save, on average, $200 annually. This may seem a modest amount, but to those on fixed and low incomes, it can be significant.

Q: Given your long history advocating for energy efficiency policies and technologies, you have a unique perspective on both the history of the issue and its potential. Why do you think it's been so challenging to communicate about energy efficiency? What do you think advocates should do next to keep the topic top of mind for business and government audiences?

A: Energy efficiency advocacy has always been challenging, but now – in an era of cheap and abundant (and cleaner) energy resources – it can be even a harder sell. There is no “intuitive connection” between becoming more energy efficient and the environment like there is with renewable energy resources like solar and wind; it requires explanation. You can’t “see” energy efficiency; there are no “ribbon-cutting” ceremonies typically held for upgrading the lighting in a building or insulating a home. And, energy efficiency improvements require an up-front investment, whether by government, utilities, businesses or homeowners. Finally, the ways to advance energy efficiency are many and diverse making it hard to clearly define and/or understand what comprises the energy efficiency industry and who has jobs in that sector.

Fortunately, there now is very good and credible information on the size of the EE industry – which is huge and growing – and the kinds of jobs within that industry, the majority of which can’t be moved off-shore. Using this data, which is available down to the congressional district level, is one of the best ways to keep energy efficiency “front and center” for policy makers and businesses alike. And, even with the inherent challenges sketched out above, energy efficiency remains the cheapest and quickest way to tackle global climate change and other environmental problems associated with energy use. And, it remains the cheapest, cleanest and most abundant resource available for meeting our energy needs. Advocates need to stress that energy efficiency is a win-win-win proposition for all Americans: energy efficiency is a jobs generator; a pocket-book padder; a reliability and security enhancer; and a cost-effective environmental problem-solver.

Q: At a time when the federal government seems less interested in aggressive advocacy for energy efficiency, what should business and industry be doing to help address the energy challenges that energy efficiency can help solve?

A: Businesses and industry are the keys to unlocking government investment and policies to advance energy efficiency. The administration is but one branch of the government; the Congress has “stood strong” on funding for energy efficiency work by the DOE and EPA (Energy Star) and a large reason for this is advocacy work that has been done by key businesses and industry working collaboratively with energy efficiency advocacy organizations like the Alliance to Save Energy. Holding the line on federal investment is central to continued advancement of energy efficiency in the U.S. and it will require the continued, direct and very active engagement of business and industry. Also, the federal government is a “small player” in terms of the overall U.S. investment in energy efficiency and the public policies that are helping to drive it. The DOE budget for EE is about $1 billion/year while the annual spend by utilities and state governments in the U.S. last year was nearly $9 billion. This level of investment, coupled with aggressive energy efficiency and greenhouse gas targets in a growing number of states are really the “center of gravity” for energy efficiency advancement in the U.S. My hope is that the federal government will look at the economic and environmental impacts and returns on investment that these states are realizing through their innovative and strong energy efficiency policies and use them as the basis for future national energy policy.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?

A: You have to truly believe in what you are “selling”; being authentic and passionate are the keys to good communications.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?

A: Check your facts. It may seem superfluous in this political moment where no one seems to care about the truth, but in my experience, successful advocacy hinges on having good, hard and credible data to support the case you are making.

Kateri Callahan

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