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2021: The year clean energy consolidated its political power in Washington

A chat with Heather Zichal, the new top lobbyist for big clean energy, on how the industry is honing its powers of persuasion.
By Julian Spector

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Heather Zichal (American Clean Power)

The clean energy industry has always been an underdog in American politics. It encompasses numerous, disparate sectors and technologies, yet even their collective financial might pales in comparison to more established fossil-fuel-based industries.

But something changed this year.

In January, a new trade group launched to unify clean-energy advocacy in Washington. The American Clean Power Association (ACP) grew out of the main wind trade group, the American Wind Energy Association, and added solar, transmission and energy storage companies, as well as corporate buyers of carbon-free power. For the role of CEO, the new group chose Heather Zichal, who coordinated climate policy in the Obama administration as deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change.

ACP mobilized to push for policy support as Congress dug into bipartisan infrastructure legislation, which was signed into law in November, and fought for major climate measures in the Build Back Better Act. That legislation passed the House but appears stuck in the Senate due to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s (D) statement of opposition Sunday.

That development jeopardizes many of ACP’s top policy priorities to accelerate clean energy adoption. ACP nonetheless finishes the year having consolidated renewables advocacy in Washington like never before.

The group now claims more than 800 member companies. Its 39 board members hail from old-school utilities, upstart renewables developers, clean-power equipment suppliers, and the wind power subsidiaries of oil giants like Equinor and BP. In January 2022, ACP will formally absorb the U.S. Energy Storage Association, reflecting the convergence of storage technology with large-scale renewables.

I sat down with Zichal at the Energy Storage Association conference on December 2 to reflect on how she shepherded this coalition and wielded its influence to promote clean energy policy. The interview has been edited for clarity and length, and supplemented with follow-up questions on what comes next after Manchin voiced his refusal to support Build Back Better.

Julian Spector: You’re overseeing this coalition of storage people, wind, offshore wind, solar and transmission. Do you also get into building electrification and efficiency?

Heather Zichal: We haven’t. We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.

At the same time, in Washington, D.C. today, you’ve got the American Petroleum Institute, which is broadly recognized as the voice of American oil and gas. And there’s never been anything close to counter that [on the clean energy side]. We’re still going to be outspent 10 to one. However, I think we need to show up in a way that brings everybody under the tent.

We’re on a great trajectory, and the more successful we are, the bigger target we have on our back. And so we need to be very strategic about how we grow this industry and how we play our politics. And that has to be well-resourced, and that has to be something that the entire industry buys into.

I feel like you’re going down the path of, how do you manage all that?

Spector: So how do you manage all that?

Zichal: I want to make sure we’re representing all of the technologies equally, recognizing that we not only have utility people, we have OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], we have the purchasers at the end of the scale. We’ve got a lot of different business models that we’re managing for.

But at the end of the day, our North Star is what is going to lead to the deployment of more clean energy and deeper decarbonization. That’s what we need to remember to keep us from getting dragged and bogged down into other individual fights, either with Congress or on regulatory issues. We need to be smart, as the leaders of this organization, to pick and choose what we think we can accomplish.

Spector: Have you had to make any tough trade-offs yet? Or has the congressional agenda in the last few months meant that everyone can go for their policy goals at the same time?

Zichal: One of our collective top priorities is passage of the stand-alone storage [investment tax credit]. Being able to work on that together has been great. And then some of the incentives for battery manufacturing.

Whether it’s storage or hydrogen or pick your favorite, we need to find a way to more effectively communicate with both sides of the aisle and create political space to do big, bold things.

Spector: In your initial founding group, a big name was NextEra Energy. It’s the biggest renewables developer, generally very good at getting what it wants. What was the value of having it as a core launch supporter in terms of showing that you’re the group that’s going to be the voice for the clean energy industry?

Zichal: I don’t think it’s about any one company. I think it’s about what we represent collectively.

I think where we are successful is by building ourselves as a brand that understands the markets, understands the technology, has a full grasp of the policy, and is able to effectively communicate that to anybody whether they’re a state official, a Republican member of Congress, or a senator from a purple state. That’s what we’re trying to build and grow because that is the path to success for clean energy in Washington.

Spector: The Solar Energy Industries Association has not jumped on board. What does that mean?

Zichal: Candidly, I haven’t had a conversation with SEIA about merging. I have a ton of respect for Abby [Ross Hopper, CEO of SEIA] and the work that they do. But I think the residential solar industry is very different from what we’re focused on, which is utility-scale. We can all look at the scale of the challenge that we have with climate change and recognize the more the merrier that are working on this.

Spector: In Build Back Better, it seemed like we were going to get a clean energy standard, or Clean Electricity Performance Program. Then that got cut. What’s still doable for American clean energy without having a federal push toward 100 percent clean electricity?

Zichal: I think that coverage of the importance of CEPP was a little overstated in terms of what it was going to provide on the decarbonization front. Is that disappointing? Yes.

However, if you look at the guts of the package, this will be more than this industry has ever seen before. Which will lead to deeper decarbonization, a lot of job creation, long-term certainty and predictability, which also leads to manufacturing opportunities. I am less worried about the CEPP and more focused on [the fact that] this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that will do more for this industry and more to help us meet the 2030 and 2035 and 2050 decarbonization targets than any other legislative package we could have imagined.

We just need to get it done. And we’re very focused. For the first time ever, our industries launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, and not only in Washington, D.C., but at the federal level to try to create political space to get this done.

Spector: So you’re targeting specific lawmakers’ home districts and doing the sort of things that other political influencers have found to be effective? Is that the first time that clean energy’s really done that?

Zichal: Yeah.

Spector: How’s it going so far?

Zichal: We got a lot of positive feedback, including from members from the targeted states that we ran the ads in. We had a lot of positive feedback from congressional leadership. And a lot of the climate philanthropy community was like, You guys are in the mix; you’re running ads and fighting for this.” We’re business voices, which was critically important against a lot of the naysayers on Build Back Better.

The administration has been so great — half the Cabinet calls on a regular basis to say how much they appreciate what we’ve done. It feels good. That’s exactly what we should be doing, and we’re going to do more of it.

Editor’s note: The following exchange happened over email this week after Manchin voiced his intent to oppose the Build Back Better legislation.

Spector: Senator Manchin’s recent comments appear to block the pathway for enacting Build Back Better. Do you think this is the end for that legislation?

Zichal: We remain optimistic that the popular energy and climate change provisions can be included in whatever package is negotiated in early 2022.

Spector: What will ACP do to help enact the clean energy policies contained within Build Back Better, in light of Manchin’s stated opposition?

Zichal: ACP and our member companies remain confident that there is still strong support for the predictable clean energy incentives and climate change provisions in whatever form the final legislative package takes. ACP will continue to work closely with members of Congress and the Biden administration as negotiations continue in early 2022 to ensure that programs that accelerate our transition to a clean energy future are included and enacted.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.