#109 Lisa Jacobson, President of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy

Lisa Jacobson is the President of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE), a 55-member trade association representing the energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy industries. In this role, Ms. Jacobson advises states and federal policymakers on energy, tax, air quality and climate change policy. She is a member of the Department of Energy’s State Energy Efficiency Steering Committee, the United States Trade Representative’s Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committee, the Energy Efficiency Global Alliance Steering Committee and the Gas Technology Institute’s Public Interest Advisory Committee. Ms. Jacobson has testified before Congress and has represented energy industries before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Prior to her position with the BCSE, Ms. Jacobson was a legislative aide in the U.S. House of Representatives. She has a master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Vermont.

Bigger Than Us Episode 109

This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.

Host Raj Daniels  01:52

So Lisa, I like to open the show by asking my guests the following question. If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Lisa Jacobson  02:00

Well, I’m not sure that this is so interesting. But it’s certainly something that I value at this time where we’re dealing with COVID-19, and the restrictions in our in our life. I’m a music lover. That’s really been keeping me going. But I miss live musical events. And so I hope we can have them soon. So it may not be that novel, but it’s true.

Host Raj Daniels  02:29

Do you play music?

Lisa Jacobson  02:31

Not well. Music listener!

Host Raj Daniels  02:36

What do you play when you’re not playing? Well, 

Lisa Jacobson  02:38

Piano. 

Host Raj Daniels  02:39

And have you been playing it during the past year?

Lisa Jacobson  02:42

Not that much. You know, we don’t have a piano in my house right now. So no, I have not.

Host Raj Daniels  02:46

Maybe something to look forward to.

Lisa Jacobson  02:48

Right I also want to learn how to play guitar. So I do have a guitar. And I’ve taken lessons. But I’ve with children and other things fallen off the practicing. So maybe that’s a more realistic music goal for the coming year.

Host Raj Daniels  03:03

So I’ve heard and read that guitar sales have been at an all time high during the pandemic.

Lisa Jacobson  03:08

Yes, I believe that. And I know a lot of people that are doing online lessons. That’s been something that has been fairly easy to transition, I think to the virtual virtual learning situation. So yeah. Now you’re thinking I gotta get back to it.

Host Raj Daniels  03:26

Well, good for you. The reason I’m saying that is because my oldest daughter, she picked up guitar this summer, and she asked me to buy her an app. And she’s really been enjoying self teaching herself using the application.

Lisa Jacobson  03:40

Okay. All right. Thank you for that.

Host Raj Daniels  03:43

You’re welcome. So Lisa, switching gears, can you give the audience an overview of the BCSE and your role at the organization?

Lisa Jacobson  03:51

Sure, I’d be happy to. BCSE stands for Business Council for Sustainable Energy. And it’s a trade association. We’re based in Washington, DC. And it focuses on promoting policies that expand deployment and investment in mostly commercially available clean energy technologies and the industries that we work most closely with our energy efficiency industries, natural gas industries, and renewable energy industry. So our networks and our membership are involved in pretty much all technologies at this point and are looking to advance and commercialize the next wave of sustainable energy technologies. And my role, I serve as the President and I had the opportunity to work at the organization, right when I got out of graduate school as the director of international programs, but then left and came back when my predecessor left this was now a good number of years ago and have been serving as the president for over a decade.

Host Raj Daniels  05:02

So what does the organization do for the members?

Lisa Jacobson  05:06

Well, we serve as a conduit for policymakers primarily, we try to share information about technology change in our economy, especially in the energy sector. And then, you know, work with our members to craft policy recommendations that are focused again on cost-effective deployment of clean energy.

Host Raj Daniels  05:30

And you said earlier, mostly commercial, is that correct?

Lisa Jacobson  05:34

Right. So things that are readily available and in the market today.

Host Raj Daniels  05:39

Now, on occasion, do you have the opportunity to deal with technologies that are not commercialized yet?

Lisa Jacobson  05:44

Yes. Because again, I think, you know, if you look at our membership, we have very different types of entities as members. So we may have public power or investor-owned utilities, we might have large energy service companies. So large ESCOs are energy integrators and they’re going to use all different kinds of technologies, you might have project developers that use multiple technologies, and then you have either industrials or equipment manufacturers that might make a particular technology. So it gets us in most, most technology arenas. But when we’re talking with policymakers, and the mission of the organization is really let’s make sure that when we’re thinking about policy, that we are fully utilizing commercially available technologies that get the job done.

Host Raj Daniels  06:39

Now, early this year, there was a lot of issues with the tech companies. And you know, how some of the should I say lawmakers are not up to speed on technology. I noticed one of the things that the council does is offer practical industry expertise to policymakers. Can you share how the council does that?

Lisa Jacobson  07:00

Yeah, there’s a lot of different ways that we do that. But I mean, one way is just one on one interaction. I mean, right now, that’s happening in a virtual way. But normally, there’s a lot of, in-person small group interactions with both policymakers, like the officials themselves, like a member of Congress, or a senator, or someone working at the state or city level, but also their staffs. Another way that we communicate is we develop resources. And so one of the resources that we’ve developed over the last 10 years is something called the Sustainable Energy in America Factbook. And that is a report we commissioned each year from Bloomberg, New Energy Finance. And it’s meant to show over time, the real rapid transformation that the US energy sector has experienced and through data, you know, show how technology costs have changed or show how deployment trends have evolved, or show kind of metrics about uptick in certain types of policies. And, you know, we try to be very up to date with this. But we find that still a lot of policymakers have not maybe perhaps a deep understanding of our energy systems or our energy marketplace.

But more importantly, things are changing so fast that even if they were generally up to speed, it may be as they’re looking ahead, and they’re trying to craft policies that will make change, and in the years to come, that they don’t have the most up to date information. And this is particularly important on technology costs, where we’ve seen very steep declines, in particular in renewable energy technologies. And if you aren’t aware of that, especially in your own jurisdiction, you may have a different outlook on a different policy proposal.

Host Raj Daniels  08:53

Nope, you’ve been with your organization for quite some time. While not asking you to pick any favorites, what are some of the technologies that you’ve been most interested in?

Lisa Jacobson  09:02

Well, you know, I love all the technologies. There clearly are few, I mean, you know, I’ll pick one that maybe not many people are aware of, and it kind of is like energy, where I think most people just look at the switch and turn it on and off, and they see their bill and they pay it and you know, maybe they’re paying attention to what’s behind the switch. But oftentimes, you know, basically, that’s the way our society had been structured. It’s like, energy on demand, it’s reliable. Hopefully, it’s affordable, and it’s there for you 24 seven, that’s the goal.

Now, in the last 20 years, there’s definitely much more of an emphasis about the energy mix, and what its impacts are on society. And we certainly care about how it’s, you know, interacting with other sustainability objectives. So I’ll pick a technology called waste to energy technology where they’re taking waste streams and making renewable energy out of it. And I didn’t really know very much about this or very much about our waste management policies as a country or even in the community that I live in. But I had the opportunity a good number of years ago to actually visit one of these facilities locally. And it just, you know, really opened my eyes. I was, you know, I, we talked so much about, you know, how to be better stewards. At a household level, some of the first things you do relate to your garbage and recycling, but where does all that go? And so I was really enamored with the sophistication of that technology. And so for me, personally, it’s just something that I would put up, there as maybe something you don’t know very much about, which would be good to check out.

Host Raj Daniels  10:48

You know, it’s interesting, you mentioned waste energy. It’s actually one of the areas that we as a company specialize in. This wasn’t planned by any means. But yes, absolutely. We, the majority of wasted energy projects that take place in the United States, United States come across our desk in one form or the other.

Lisa Jacobson  11:07

We should talk separately about that because as I said, we have a few members in that sector. But also I, you know, it’s just a really interesting conversation. So I look forward to learning more about your company and talking more about it with you.

Host Raj Daniels  11:20

Absolutely. And the other part, you mentioned regarding people turning on the switch, but not knowing what’s behind it, just last month, so I live in a, I guess, a master-planned community. And we have a co-op, where we buy our get our power from and just last month, they sent, they sent a monthly magazine, the co-op is called Co Serve. And the magazine featured on the front page, just how much of the energy they’re buying from renewable. So I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, I don’t know if it’s because of the upcoming election, but it just seemed to, you know, play out that way that just this month, or last month, they happen to mention renewable energy.

Lisa Jacobson  11:55

That’s fabulous. I mean, I think it’s it’s bits and pieces happening at the same time. But I think it’s largely driven by the fact that renewable energy and other clean energy resources, you know, maybe 10, 15 years ago, were not as competitive as they are today. And now they are. So the educational component of what you just said, is there. But it also is an expression of the fact that this is achievable. And, you know, the association is probably driven by interested members, and also the fact that they could get more renewable energy and the affordable way if they want to. So yeah, that’s great.

Host Raj Daniels  12:35

I think absolutely. And I think as more people become aware, whether it’s through public campaigns, education, you know, in some cases, also children in school, learning about it, whatever that looks like, but I think the more people that become aware of it, they can ask better questions, perhaps about where the energy is coming from. And to the other point regarding the waste part of it. You know, I know I’ve had several conversations, we have a recycling program here, but not everything that we put in the recycling goes into recycling. So that’s a whole other can of worms that absolutely people are interested in that, they should, they can do further research regarding what their waste management programs are.

Lisa Jacobson  13:11

Definitely, I mean, I don’t want to start plugging particular shows, but there was an I believe, and we can edit this out if we need to, but I believe a Frontline Documentary on plastic that I watched one of the things I watched over, you know, the quarantine period, and I was just so dismayed because I’m definitely one of these people. That is like telling my kids, we got to rinse it out. We got everything, you know, I’m really into recycling, because I feel like it’s something that I can do. But when I saw how much plastic and how much than going to the grocery store and seeing that everything basically that’s there that’s in plastic is not currently recycled in many parts of the country. And that let alone the world was really disturbing. And maybe that’s not all true, but I, you know, definitely it was a really good show to watch. And it was very thoughtfully done. And it wasn’t trying to be scare tactics, it was about just really understanding the world of plastic. Right.

So but the other thing I would say, if we’re going to talk about waste to energy, and you probably have good information to share, too, is that as I understand it, not everyone may be having waste to energy options in their community. But those that do, for the most part, have very, very high recycling rates. So if there was ever kind of a question like okay, well, if we’re doing waste to energy, are we not recycling? No, I think they go very much hand in hand. And I just want to share that too.

Host Raj Daniels  14:45

Absolutely. And I think, you know, to mention the plastics specifically, I think that’s the one that becomes most disheartening for people when they realize that so much of their efforts have been essentially in vain. But on the other side of that coin, I really feel like getting that habit in from now, so when things do improve, I think it’s a great way to start. So I definitely understand how people feel almost misled that, you know, I’ve been rinsing and cleaning for all these years, and it just ends up in the same place. And, you know, Frontline did a good job. And there are other shows out there that, you know, have highlighted the problem. But I feel like the habit is a good habit regardless.

Lisa Jacobson  15:19

Well, yeah, it’s mindfulness. So at least on our end, we can be mindful. And hopefully, as you said, we can get the systems and economics in a place where what is what we can reuse, we are reusing. But yeah, so that’s not my area of expertise, believe it or not, even though we’ve spent so much time on it. But that is a technology that I really appreciate and am seeking to learn more about.

Host Raj Daniels  15:48

And you mentioned mindfulness, and I’m a huge fan of mindfulness. So I’m sure that could be a whole show in itself. But I appreciate you pointing that out. So I’m going to change gears here. You know, you’ve been running this organization for a while now, my question to you is why I’m sure you’ve had other opportunities, but what motivates you What drives you to keep doing so?

Lisa Jacobson  16:08

Well, I think this waste-to-energy example is actually a really good illustration. I mean, I find I’m learning every day in my job. And there’s much more that needs to be done in terms of the broad mission that we share collectively as a coalition, in terms of improving our environment and progressing sustainability. And you know, the technologies and the business models evolve, the market conditions evolve, the policy environment evolves. So it’s, in some ways, we are having similar conversations, on some aspects of our work. But so much of what we’re doing is very dynamic. So it’s just an exciting place. And it is multiple technologies, and now much more than maybe, you know, 10 years ago, multiple sectors, I mean, we still are primarily power sector-focused as an organization, but you know, transportation is much more integrated into the work of my members.

And then, you know, a whole systems approach and you know, grid integrated buildings, and then connection to transportation, this whole next wave of what our infrastructure can look like, you know, takes you outside of a pure electricity focus. And you start thinking about more aspects of our infrastructure. And I think that’s really exciting. And then technology, not just energy technologies, but digitalization and how that is changing the marketplace, not just for energy, but throughout our economy as a whole is really exciting. So I also think people are more aware back to what you were saying, I just think it’s a really exciting time to be working in the energy field, whereas maybe 20, 30 years ago, even myself, I didn’t think I would be working on energy policy, I just kind of happened upon it, given some things that were going on in my life, but I was one of those people, right, you know, just turn the switch on and pay my bill. And yes, I care about the environment. But I was not very informed or thinking of energy policy is a real dynamic space, I thought of it may be more as a technical arena, and not, you know, kind of a people-focused transformational opportunity, which I definitely see it that way now.

Host Raj Daniels  18:29

So if you don’t mind sharing, how did you come upon it? 

Lisa Jacobson  18:34

I started my career working as a congressional aide in Washington, DC. I started interning when I was in college and came down and had the opportunity to come to Washington and I really loved the work and could see that someone at a young age could make a difference. And working for different legislators, I got a lot out of it. But my focus at the time was much more on domestic education and health care policy. But I was always interested in sustainability and wanted to kind of make a shift to international policy work. And so I went to graduate school and I focused my degree on global trade and global development issues. And then while I was there, I reviewed a thesis from one of my classmates, and it was on emissions trading, and environmental economics, which I knew a little bit about, but I didn’t know a lot. And it just really was interesting to me. And it was also right before a major environmental conference.

The Kyoto Protocol was the following year after I graduated from grad school, and I just wanted to be a part of it. I mean, it was a combination of a lot of things. I was interested in terms of development and trade policy, and also kind of the neediest global environmental issue. And I also wanted to work with the private sector because I think whether you’re working directly in the capacity that I am now, or you’re working with another either public or private or NGO entity, I mean, just the integration of the private sector is just critical for the transformations that we’re trying to make. So, you know, that’s how I ended up working in the energy field.

Host Raj Daniels  20:21

So, my research shows that you’ve been in this field, broadly speaking for about 15 to 16 years. While you were answering, you said there, you’ve always had an interest in sustainability. Where does that interest come from?

Lisa Jacobson  20:34

I don’t know, just growing up. I just think, also you talk about education, I’m sure it was something that was presented, and integrated into my family life. And, you know my early education, I’m not going to date myself too much here. I was a 70s child. So, you know, my first decade I was born in 1969, you don’t, you could delete it if you want. I don’t really care. But you know, I was, that’s what was going on in New York when I was growing up, you know, it was a lot of focus on the environment, as well as other issues. So in formative years, I’m sure I was exposed to that. And it just made me interested in trying to understand what sustainability would mean and how I could participate in it.

…the integration of the private sector is just critical for the transformations that we’re trying to make.

Host Raj Daniels  21:25

Well, I appreciate your openness, Lisa. So on this journey, let’s say 15 years now, what are some of the most valuable lessons that you would say you’ve learned about yourself?

Lisa Jacobson  21:35

I think I’m fairly persistent. And I try to be a good listener, I’m sure I could improve there. I had some really good first bosses, supervisors, and mentors, and they, I think, gave me a really good foundation for the work that I do now. And they were hard-driving but very inclusive, and inspirational people in and of themselves. So I think, you know, just having that foundation, as I moved in different parts of my career, you know, helped me adapt and remain a positive outlook. I mean, I think that that really is probably at the end of the day, the most important thing and in life is just trying to maintain a positive outlook, and bring that positive outlook to other people and to the things that you’re doing. So I think I generally have a positive outlook if you ask me a question, I’m usually going to pivot on the positive side, or try to have that kind of, you know, it’s just the way I try to I don’t even it’s not something I do intentionally. It’s just something that I think is a part of the way I cope with life.

Host Raj Daniels  22:46

I hear you, and that resonates very strongly with me. So I appreciate that. Now, again, on your journey here, you’ve seen quite a transition from when you started to where we are right now, especially in the clean energy, renewable energy move movement. What are some of the aha moments or surprise moments that you’ve seen?

Lisa Jacobson  23:04

I think, again, the, if you had said 15 years ago, you know, what corporations would do in terms of renewable energy procurement and deployment, that would have definitely surprised people. And it all is tied to the cost reductions in the sector. So those are definite aha moments, like, you know, there’s still people that question, you know, whether clean energy is affordable or practical, or attainable. But I think, you know, especially the fact book, if you look at the data, and this factbook I mentioned, I mean, it’s just, if you look at the top-line metrics, it’s pretty amazing. What, what the facts are about clean energy. And it’s very different than when I first got into the field. And that’s just tremendously exciting.

Host Raj Daniels  23:56

And I will put a link to the factbook in the show notes. Oh, great. Thank you. Absolutely. So Lisa, it’s 2025. What does the future hold for BCSE?

Lisa Jacobson  24:08

I hope that we are moved beyond the stepping stone we are in right now on policy, and we have more longer-term policies that will guide investment. So hopefully, so we’re at 2021, almost now, right? So in four years, my hope is that we are kind of in the next phase of investment in the energy sector. And again, it’s not just narrow but also integrating energy and all these systems. So hopefully, if those policies this next wave of policies are in place, you know, we’ll be in the business of building and hiring and implementing.

Host Raj Daniels  24:51

Sounds like a beautiful vision. Shoulder to shoulder willing to do so. So the last question, and you mentioned earlier, you mentioned the word mindful. You mentioned intentionally. You mentioned having a positive outlook. I’m sensing a theme. But the last question is, if you could share some advice, or words of wisdom with the audience, it could be professional, or personal, what would it be?

Lisa Jacobson  25:16

Well, I think right now we’re all, you know, again, it’d be interesting, I don’t think this would change if you come to me in two or three years. But I think for most people, right now, this circumstance we’re in is like a reset moment on what really matters in life. I mean, what really matters is your health and your family and your friends, right. So you know, just really trying to be, the best person you can be in those relationships is, and that’s not always easy. It’s not easy for me. Then I would say from that is, if you’re fortunate enough to know what makes you happy in life, try to integrate that into your professional circumstance.

And, you know, I’m always amazed, unrelated to anything I do, like, you know, whether it be just kind of a profile of somebody, or just hearing somebody’s story. And you know, they may have nothing to do with what I’m doing. And you hear how they got there. And it’s just like, well, you know, it just, I felt this way about a topic or an issue, and then all of a sudden, you know, that’s like 5, 10 years later, and they’ve created a whole life for themselves based on that feeling, or that passion. And I don’t feel I have completely done that in my life or anything. I mean, these people are really inspirational. But what it tells you is that, yeah, maybe anything you want to do, you really can do. If you try and really carve that path out for yourself. It takes tremendous persistence. And I’m sure, you know, lots of challenges along the way. But, but people do that. And that’s inspiring to me.

So I don’t know what the next career I’ll have will be. But I try to think about that sometimes, like, you know, just because I’m not in the medical field right now, or I don’t play an instrument right now. Like, you know what, not that I’m going to be a professional musician, but you get it like, like, there’s lots of things in life to do. And your work is important. So if you can integrate your passions with your work, that’s terrific. But even if you’re not, you know, just continue to strive to try to understand what motivates you as a person and do as much of that as you can with the time you have.

…if you’re fortunate enough to know what makes you happy in life, try to integrate that into your professional circumstance.

www.bcse.org

www.bsce.org/factbook

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Raj Daniels