Dec 10, 2020 - Energy & Environment

New renewable-energy group taps Heather Zichal as CEO

Heather Zichal in March 2012 at the White House.

Heather Zichal in March 2012 at the White House, when she advised President Obama on climate and energy. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

A new renewable-energy trade group has announced its chief executive as Heather Zichal, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama.

Why it matters: President-elect Joe Biden has promised to drastically increase clean energy, so this group — called the American Clean Power Association — will be at the center of Washington’s biggest debates over the next four years.

What they’re saying: “We’ve gone from a point in time when the voice in Washington for the renewable sector is no longer a nice to have, it’s a must-have as we think about our climate and economic agenda,” Zichal said in an interview with Axios this week, her first since taking the new role that starts Monday.

Flashback: Since the Obama administration, Zichal has recently worked at The Nature Conservancy and as executive director of another climate-oriented group, the Blue Prosperity Coalition.

Driving the news: She had been mentioned as a possible candidate in the Biden administration and earlier in her career worked for then-Sen. John Kerry, who is a top climate official in the incoming administration, who praised her as "strategic and smart" in a statement to Axios.

  • “Heather is an extraordinary warrior on climate and she was fighting this fight long before it was cool," Kerry said. "We’re now in the ten years that will define whether we win on climate and I'm not at all surprised she’s doubling down, but I’m certainly glad she is."

Where it stands: The American Clean Power Association, which was announced in September and formally launches Jan. 1, is the result of the 46-year-old American Wind Energy Association broadening its mission to include other renewable energy.

  • The group will have more than 800 member companies, the vast majority of which were members of AWEA.
  • When making its September announcement, AWEA said in a statement (per Greentech Media) that a broader group was warranted to better reflect the array of firms that work in the renewable energy space, including manufacturers, construction firms, transmission and storage companies.

The big picture: Renewable electricity, led by hydropower and wind, makes up nearly 18% of U.S. electricity. A decade ago, wind and solar were nearly 0% (hydropower has remained steady for decades.)

The intrigue: It is a tough task getting a bunch of distinct but similar interests on the same page, as is necessary for trade associations.

  • Other decades-old renewable energy groups, including the Solar Energy Industries Association and the National Hydropower Association, are not merging with the group.
  • Zichal said she will seek to collaborate with existing trade groups in this space. But the American Clean Power Association (coined ACP) will have a “larger budget, a bigger footprint and I believe a larger impact,” she mentioned.

By the numbers: The goal in the coming years is for ACP’s budget to be roughly triple the size of existing renewable-energy trade groups, said an official involved with the new group who requested anonymity to discuss financial details before a formal launch. (For comparison, AWEA's total expenses in 2018 were around $22 million.)

What I’m watching: Biden has repeatedly said he wants to ensure the renewable-energy jobs he helps create are labor-friendly with unions. Renewable energy is historically less unionized than other energy types.

  • This tension is not lost on Zichal, who said one of her first phone calls was with the United Steelworkers. A union spokesperson confirmed the meeting to Axios.

Go deeper: Biden’s climate plan tries to bring unions into the clean-energy revolution

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