#Solar100’s Katherine Hamilton: The Steve Kerr of Renewable Energy

Energy veteran Katherine Hamilton reminds us of basketball veteran Steve Kerr (and vice versa). Here’s why:

  • Both are grounded in years of technical expertise: In the ’90s, Kerr was as a basketball player before becoming a coach, and Hamilton worked as an energy engineer before becoming an energy policy expert.
  • Both are respected as industry experts: As the head coach of the winning team of the 2015 and 2017 NBA finals, Kerr is sought out for his insights on his team as well as the broader sport. Known for her energy expertise, Hamilton has testified before the House Science Committee on renewables, advises world leaders on how to accelerate the global transition to clean energy, and serves as Ambassador to the Secretary of Energy’s Clean Energy Education Empowerment (C3E), President of GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic, and Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Energy.
  • Both are quick to recognize their colleagues (and have a sense of humor): When Kerr was asked to compare himself to Gregg Popovich, he reportedly responded, “Pop’s one of the greatest coaches of all time, certainly top three. I’m not… I think I’m fourth.” Similarly, Hamilton introduced her industry colleague Amy Harder as an, “Awesome new entrant to #Solar100. I dropped down one; like to think was making room…”
  • Both are thoughtful advocates: Whether it’s speaking about gun violence and the need to keep citizens safe or commending player Kevin Love for speaking about mental health, Kerr is known for his ability to speak to the core issue in a way that can reach across partisan lines. Similarly, whether it’s casually describing her experiences as an expectant mother testifying before a male-dominated House Science Committee in the ’90s or speaking about the importance of renewables in local job development, economic growth, and community redevelopment, Hamilton has dedicated her career to finding innovative energy solutions across partisan lines.

Katherine Hamilton’s at the top of her game and is this month’s #Solar100 thought leader.

Starting in Renewable Energy

Richard Matsui:  I read that before 38 North Solutions and your current work in energy policy, you were an English major and then an engineer. What first drew you to working in energy?

Katherine Hamilton:  My grandfather started as a surveyor for Virginia Electric and Power Company, and worked his whole career at what he called “The Company.” He was the family engineer and always wanted another engineer in the family. Given my interest in energy, I was the closest thing, even though I have degrees in English and French.

I ended up taking a summer internship with Virginia Power. Practically speaking, my grandfather also saw that utilities were great companies to work for, providing long-term stability, good retirement benefits, and a career trajectory. After I graduated from Cornell and the Sorbonne, I decided to apply for a full time job at Virginia Power.

The utility was looking for distribution design engineers (and I was obviously not one), so I took night classes in engineering. I had to take a test every six months for three years to ensure that I was doing my design calculations right, that I knew the difference between a wye and delta-connected transformer, etc. It was the best possible training on how electricity works and how systems work. I had to really learn the business, and I enjoyed it.

We were very innovative for our time—this was in the late ‘80s and we were implementing energy storage—ice storage systems—with thermal energy storage rates to deal with growing demand.

Following my desire to work with clean technologies, after a decade at the utility I moved to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). There I started new programs for the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Management Program, including energy audits for federal buildings, water efficiency programs, and increased renewables for federal sites.

Richard Matsui:  Wow, that’s an interesting backstory. How did those experiences with energy engineering then lead to your later work in solar?

Katherine Hamilton:  When I was at NREL, because of my background in creative writing, I was adept at translating what NREL’s scientists were doing into language that policymakers could understand. As a result, I was called upon as an expert on renewable energy, testifying as a witness for the Republicans on the House Science Committee in the ‘90s. That is now sadly the committee that does not seem to believe in science. Back then, Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House, and Republicans and Democrats were still certainly much closer to the middle then than they are now. The Science Committee had a Ph.D. physicist on it who was a Republican.

[Laughs] At the time, I was also pregnant with the third of my four kids, and I thought those House Members were going to have a heart attack when I walked into the hearing room. But they were still interested in science, and, as a result, I was able to tell the story of renewables on behalf of NREL. Those were the days when renewable energy was not politicized to the point that it is now. It was considered innovative to talk about renewables in the context of science.

Policy Landscape After 201

Richard Matsui:  Section 201 dominated headlines and lobbying resources for months, and now our industry needs to quickly pivot to the next policy struggles. What are the biggest policy issues that a solar developer should be concerned about today?

Katherine Hamilton:  The best thing about having this 201 case done and having the tax bill done is that we have more certainty on pricing of modules and projects as well as duration of the tax credits. Now we need to watch out for statutes like PURPA.

Richard Matsui:  What level are you most concerned about PURPA, the state or federal level?

Katherine Hamilton:  While PURPA could probably use some updating, I view PURPA as a tool that has been used to allow competition in states where there is a utility monopoly. PURPA allows other resources to come in and compete, and both solar and wind have benefitted from PURPA. If you could tweak that statute to allow more distributed energy resources, including storage, you could use PURPA to create even more competition.

The problem with touching PURPA is that—just like the Clean Air Act—in opening the statute, it could be tweaked for the better, but it could also be tweaked for the worse. Because Congress is so polarized, it may be that FERC is a safer place to revisit PURPA.

Richard Matsui:  If you take the three-year view on this, in what ways do you see PURPA changing?

Katherine Hamilton:  Some of the calculations on cost benefits are up for discussion based on new applications and services, as is the one-mile rule. But in both cases, opening up the legislation brings us to a slippery slope. At this point, it is better to not revisit PURPA until we have more support in Congress, to ensure that it is managed very carefully and to the benefit of innovative resources and consumers.

Opportunities and Challenges for States

Richard Matsui:  What are some of the opportunities in solar from a state perspective?

Katherine Hamilton:  We can start with the states that already have high renewable portfolio standards—Hawaii, California, and New York.

Then, we can look at states that are considering raising their RPS, like Arizona, which may be creating interesting opportunities for energy storage as well.

And then there are states that might seem like unlikely candidates but that are opening up dockets on distributed energy resources. I think that is the path by which solar is going to grow more—as part of a distributed energy resource. Those proceedings are happening in Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and other states in the Midwest. Even Florida is opening up a bit. We’re going to start seeing solar in states that are looking at the resource in a context that’s broader than just net metering or RPS, but as a key part of a more distributed, flexible, demand-side resource.

Richard Matsui:  I had not heard of this trend. What’s driving these states to see solar from the lens of distributed energy resources, as opposed to an RPS or other “tried-and-true” approaches?

Katherine Hamilton:  These states see that demand response is having an impact. Demand response used to be just load shedding—you would call customers, they would drop their load, and you would the lower the peak, saving consumers money and benefitting the grid. Demand response has become a lot more sophisticated and now enables resources of all types, including  storage and solar + storage, to be more dispatchable and flexible. Solar and other demand-side resources—whether CHP or fuel cells or small wind—create more dispatchable services at the edge of a grid. And those customer-sited resources are only growing.

Regulators know that they want to get ahead of the curve, so they’re responding: “What does this mean? How do we value it?”

A lot of states are currently going through their integrated resource planning. Utilities have to think several years in advance, so when they look down the road, that’s what they’re seeing for the grid: consumer engagement, solar usage, and technologies in combination with solar that change the way residential, industrial and commercial consumers are interacting with the grid.

Richard Matsui: How is the advent of energy storage shaping solar policy?

Katherine Hamilton:  Storage is like bacon; it makes everything better. You can’t limit storage to just being for solar, although solar certainly has a lot to gain from the use of storage. We can get away from relying on NEM all the time, and instead look at the full value stack of what behind-the-meter solar + storage can bring. It starts to look more like straight-up generation, just from the “load” side.

Richard Matsui:  I tend to be quite cautious when thinking about the future of solar. Yes, we have tremendous tailwinds in favor of our industry, but I’m also always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You mentioned that you are an optimist, and I’m wondering—what makes you an optimist?

Katherine Hamilton:  Innovation is moving so fast, costs are coming down, we’re starting to see solar become much more dispatchable with smart inverters, energy-storage technologies, and with tools like demand response. I also do a lot of international work, and globally, the trends are all toward a huge increase in solar energy. The scale of this change and the trends of costs coming down paired with integrating technology costs dropping makes me incredibly optimistic.

Richard Matsui:  What are the top three states that the industry ought to be most worried about from a state policy standpoint?

Katherine Hamilton:  I think we need to worry about Virginia, North Carolina, and states that are talking about rate-basing grid modernization.

Instead of rate-basing nuclear plants that may never run (like in South Carolina), utilities are trying to find other assets to rate-base—for example, unnecessarily undergrounding high-voltage transmission lines. These investments can suck the air out of the ability for a consumer to benefit from investment in more distributed technologies like solar and other non-utility offerings. Utilities are rightly nervous about their revenue model changing, so they are going to protect what they have and attempt to control their own future. This can certainly have an impact on consumer choice and distributed solar.

Finding Allies and Advocates

Richard Matsui:  Vote Solar recently came out with this campaign against the Duke Energy Power/Forward plan for grid modernization, though at the time I didn’t appreciate why this was an issue for our industry. Now I see it. Is this the right strategy for our industry, to advocate on issues like net metering or RPS that extend beyond traditional solar issues?

Katherine Hamilton:  Absolutely. You have to be able to look at the whole system because it’s all interconnected. I think the industry needs to find allies on the ground and those allies can be unconventional. Allies can include the Chambers of Commerce, groups who believe in competition and the free market. Certainly environmental groups have been traditional allies, but an ally can include those who want to protect consumers and allow for increased local innovation. So yes, look to your state Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) chapter, but also other allied organizations to make sure that you craft the messages that work in that state. Particularly in red states, those arguments can be about economic growth, local jobs, and keeping costs lower for consumers.

Richard Matsui:  Which organizations are our most effective advocates?

Katherine Hamilton:  I think Vote Solar has done a lot of really good work with quality analysis to back it up. Different regions have a variety of grassroots non-profit and business organizations that help take the lead, so there are a lot of groups combining forces on the ground.

Certainly, on the federal level, SEIA advocates for the solar industry. SEIA did a great job on 201, organizing diverse groups, leveraging the industry collectively, and creating the right messaging. For small companies with limited reach, it is difficult to be engaged with federal policy on a one-on-one level. You’re managing your own business, so you rely on your trade group for advocacy.

Showing Up, A Free Rider Problem, and the Roles of Companies in Shaping Policy

Richard Matsui:  A couple months ago, an energy policy expert came in and spoke at one of our company’s weekly Lunch and Learns. He told us that when it comes to policy, “Companies are either at the table, or they’re on the menu.” Would you agree? If so, what are the for-profit companies that are taking a leadership role?

Katherine Hamilton:  I don’t think that if your company can’t engage directly in policy work, you’re necessarily on the menu.

I think a better way to put it is: Regardless of your size, you need to show up. Showing up could mean going to your local SEIA meeting and ensuring that the issues you care about are included on their list of priorities, or it could mean attending a town hall meeting, or writing your member of Congress a letter on what you care about. It is important to show up and participate.

You may not have to be in every single proceeding in every single state and in Congress. You just need to ask: “Look, if I don’t have the time and resources to do this, who does? I better figure out who does, and work to ally myself with them.”

Richard Matsui:  So, there are different ways of being at the table, without hiring a policy team.

Katherine Hamilton:  There are companies that have big policy teams. It’s great that they have those resources, but not everybody does. So the reality is, you need to be able to work with what you’ve got.

Richard Matsui:  But I wonder about the free rider problem that our industry has always had. Policy teams are a business function that only large companies can afford, and historically, we’ve had publicly-traded giants like SolarCity and SunEdison that would invest in policy on behalf of the whole industry. With the collapse of some of those leaders and, therefore, their policy teams, have we seen a reduction in our industry’s ability to advocate successfully?

Katherine Hamilton:  We are seeing that impact on the state level, because some companies used to be in every state but no longer have the bandwidth. We had more companies on the ground in every state, and then they could work together and leverage resources.

The reduction in the number of companies in each state policy battle increases the importance of finding allies. When we’re the last solar policy group left in a state, we better find allies. We need to ask: “Who else is out here that maybe is not doing solar specifically, but with whom we have shared goals?”

Solar in the Trump Years

Richard Matsui:  How can our industry effectively advocate for itself in the Trump years?

Katherine Hamilton:  Good question. SEIA and other coalitions worked hard to reach the administration in the tariff case and explain that Republicans should care about solar.

What has been most upsetting to me over the last fifteen years is that renewables have become partisan. Part of that has nothing to do with renewables, but it has to do with interest groups influencing Congress and previous Administrations to create a zero sum game between renewables and traditional energy resources. This has polarized the industries—fossil to Republicans and clean energy to Democrats.

I think part of our job is making sure that we change that narrative. For example, 85% of wind projects are in red states. Let’s make sure that we talk about solar in a way that’s very much about jobs, economic growth, and community redevelopment, rather than only about cleaning the planet or having a green resource. We need to be strategic, using words with different policymakers that speak to their concerns.

With the current administration, we need to lead with our business-first points and speak in that language. We have cost-competitive technologies that are challenging and beating the incumbents.   


Interview conducted by Richard Matsui, KWh Analytics.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.