The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Rob Gramlich of Grid Strategies LLC
When people ask me about the work I do, I explain that RENEWPR is focused on energy, environment and equity and most of our work is in the public affairs arena, meaning policy and regulation and similar topics. The work this month’s guest does addresses many of these issues so it makes sense that we’d include him in the Common Sense Colloquy.
Rob Gramlich is Founder and President of Grid Strategies, LLC and a frequent commenter on energy and decarbonization policy online and in print. He is also co-founder of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, the WATT Coalition, and the Future Power Markets Forum.
Previously, Rob managed transmission and power market policy for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) from 2005 through 2016 as Senior Vice President for Government and Public Affairs, Interim CEO, and Policy Director. Before that, he was Economic Advisor to FERC Chairman Pat Wood III from 2001 to 2005, Senior Economist at PJM Interconnection in 1999 and 2000, and early in his career he worked at PG&E National Energy Group, the FERC Office of Economic Policy, ICF Resources, the World Resources Institute, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
He testifies frequently before the US Congress, US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), US Department of Energy, and state legislatures and regulatory commissions. He has served on advisory committees for the U.S. Department of Energy and the North American Energy Standards Board, on boards of a number of regional clean energy organizations.
Suffice it to say, Rob has deep experience in energy policy and regulation. I saw that first-hand when he was one of my clients at AWEA. I was impressed then and have continued to be impressed as Rob has become a go-to expert who has testified before Congress, federal agencies, state legislatures and regulatory commissions and been appointed to advisory committees and boards. I’m really happy he accepted my invitation to participate in the Common Sense Colloquy.
My thanks to Rob for sharing his wisdom with me and with you.
Q: Enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Legislation feels like a long time ago even though the impact of these bills is only starting to be felt now. How do you talk about them and what do you think the next challenges are around implementation?
A: I think those laws are transformative and great credit is due to those who navigated choppy legislative waters to pass them. The incentives for EVs, wind, solar, hydrogen and other low or zero carbon energy will accelerate the energy transition to close to where we need to be to be able to lead other countries again in avoiding the existential threat of climate change.
That said, IIJA and IRA are bittersweet for me because I think the grid is the biggest barrier to decarbonization, and the laws did very little for the grid itself. There was very little money or policy for transmission which is needed for clean energy generation. With over 2 Terawatts of clean generation trying to connect to the grid, and limited capacity keeping them out, we might have missed our only or best opportunity for significant improvement in transmission policy. I felt like I was a lonely voice on this topic throughout the legislative process. Now I feel like most people realize the mistake and the importance of going back to fix it.
Q: Much of the work you do seems complex or “wonky” to most people, even though it underpins much of the most critical decisions we have to make about energy and environmental policy. How do you communicate about these dense topics to make them interesting and engaging to your audiences?
A: Well if I told you that, I would have to kill you and I like you too much for that. But seriously, as a natural introvert, I had to evolve into a public communicator pretty deliberately over the course of my career. I have a strong passion for changing the world in this way and nothing will happen if we don’t spread the word and persuade important people. So public communication is essential, even if at times uncomfortable for me. And no one will listen or be persuaded if one communicates in jargon or wonky language. We have to hit people over the head with the problem and the solutions.
Generally I try to speak as if I am speaking to my neighbor. I try to make the topic not only understandable, but important and interesting to them, to make them want to call their Congressperson and ask them to act. That can be a challenge when talking about bulk power markets and transmission! But it’s a fun challenge and a very important one.
Another strategy with reporters and policy makers is I spend a lot of time explaining the complicated issues to them. They usually appreciate getting the clear tutorials and they often return the favor by quoting me and consulting with me.
Q: You are asked to speak to the media regularly and you have a way of making complex topics clear and compelling. What have you learned from media interviews over the years and how have you adjusted your approach based on that experience?
A: I usually use metaphors and mental images to explain the grid--building highways to expand grid capacity, using WAZE to make more efficient use of the existing network, etc. I recommend the book "Moonwalking with Einstein" for any communicator. The book is not about Einstein but rather how people use mental images to win memory competitions because those images stick in our brains better than anything else. It made me realize that messages stick when people have an actual image in their head. If I say “transmission highway system,” people’s minds will conjure up a picture the interstate highway map of the US, and that image will stick with them more than just words or concepts. I try to use that human physiology phenomenon to communicate.
Q: What is the best common sense communications advice you’ve ever received?
A: For video and in-person communications, it is to smile and try to crack a joke up front. First of all, this stuff can be really boring, and the best way to get people to put their phones down and listen is to make them not want to miss out on the joke at which everyone else is laughing. Also nobody wants to hear boring repetitive talks, so finding the humor engages more people. The smiling part I can’t explain but it probably has to do with projecting confidence. Every individual probably needs some different advice. In my case I’m pretty sure I needed both of those bits of advice years ago when I started doing conference presentations and interviews.
Q: What is the best common sense communications advice you give to others?
A: Be a real person and dispense with highly scripted public talking points. A group-edited comment prepared by an organization for a person to deliver almost always becomes bland and uninteresting. If the point is to be ignored which can sometimes be a legitimate goal, then blandness is ok. But if the goal is to persuade people and be heard, you have to make it interesting for it to be printed and read. So, with people on my staff and people I work with, I suggest general strong points to make and vulnerable or sensitive points to avoid, but I try to avoid scripting actual language and encourage them to put it in their own words. I do the same with my own speaking. I never read speeches or testimony. I speak from bulleted lists of points to make then try to speak naturally and conversationally.