As the head of Dane County’s Office of Energy and Climate Change, Kathy Kuntz is leading the effort to cut countywide carbon emissions in half over the coming decade — largely through the subtle art of persuasion.
Kuntz, 55, lives on Madison’s West Side in a home equipped with Energy Star appliances and solar panels that offset most of the energy use, which is about a third of the typical Wisconsin home.
She takes the bus to work and drives a Nissan Leaf electric car.
“If I want to encourage other people to do these things, I need to walk the talk,” Kuntz said.
Kuntz took over as acting director in November 2019 after the first director, Keith Reopelle, retired. Her appointment was formalized late last year.
Prior to joining the county, she spent 25 years in energy efficiency, including nine years with Focus on Energy, a statewide ratepayer-funded program, and nine years as executive director of Cool Choices, a Madison nonprofit that uses a game-based platform to help organizations reach sustainability goals.
It wasn’t the career path she had planned.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Kuntz studied math and history in college and spent a year working as an actuary before moving to northern Wisconsin to run an early childhood anti-poverty program.
In 1992, she enrolled in UW-Madison, expecting to earn a Ph.D. in history, but it was a temp job as a receptionist at a nonprofit that led her into what would become a career in energy.
“It was like this fascinating place and people were doing cool things and I just really got sucked in,” Kuntz said. “So I finished my thesis and leapt wholeheartedly into efficiency.”
What is your role as director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change?In a nutshell, it’s to implement our countywide Climate Action Plan.
Keith (Reopelle) did this fabulous job of convening stakeholders and pulling together a vision for what the county could do. I was part of that. That’s how I first got involved. I was on some of his working groups, thinking through what really could we do at a county level? And so now, we’ve got this map.
We issued the plan in April. And since then, a lot of my effort has been around, I would say, engagement and listening — reaching out to groups who we think could play a critical role in the plan.
I’m also spending a chunk of time with different industry sectors trying to understand ... what’s it going to take to have us move faster? ... Are there still things that the county or our partners in local government or some variation can do to help that?
It is way more about persuasion than mandates. As a county, we have very few sticks to deploy, and there’s not clear evidence sticks are the way to do a lot of this. We have an ability to persuade folks that a clean energy future ends up benefiting everyone. We get environmental benefits but also economic and health and equitable communities that we all care about.
How did you go from anti-poverty work to academia to energy efficiency?I’m an idealist. That work was incredibly informative to me in terms of really helping me understand the challenges of rural poverty.
I thought that I wanted to tackle these issues in a much kind of bigger way. And what I learned in graduate school is that I’m an implementer. It was really miserable to be sitting in seminars, talking about what other people had done and critiquing it.
I finished my master’s (degree), and by then I’d been drawn into a nonprofit called Wisconsin Demand-Side Demonstrations. It was an initiative that the Public Service Commission created, an early attempt at having the utilities work together to do efficiency at a bigger scale.
It was people who sat on opposing sides of all kinds of legal cases sitting around a table figuring out well, how are we going to increase the high-efficiency three-phase motors in Wisconsin paper mills.
I could see us making real progress. I had a lot of concern about low-income communities. And, certainly in the environmental space, it’s really clear that communities who’ve contributed the least to our challenges often suffer the most. It felt right from a social justice place, and we were getting things done.
What did you find so interesting about energy conservation?A lot of what traditional energy efficiency looks at is equipment. And it was becoming increasingly clear to me that there was this human element that we needed to deal with more effectively.
(In) 1970, a new refrigerator used 1,800 kilowatt-hours a year. And by 2010, that’s like 500. And so you see this huge technological advance in household efficiency. So the individual appliances are using far less, but our homes are using far more.
In the ‘70s, in our house, we had a TV that didn’t have a remote control. So when it was off, it was off. We had a couple of clocks. There’s a stereo that again was off when it was off. And that was kind of it. A refrigerator — that’s what was plugged in. A 10-year-old cable DVR box uses as much electricity as a refrigerator. And some people have three of them.
We weren’t going to get to where we wanted to go in terms of efficiency — and increasingly, climate action — just through more efficient appliances. We had to think about how to engage people.
Does battling climate change really come down to changing behaviors, or do we need systemic change?I am always wanting to resist this dichotomy, that it’s either big companies who are causing this or individuals with their choices, because it’s a “yes, and.” It’s both. When you look at those lists of big companies that are polluting, they all have consumers.
I think anytime we’re spending our energies pointing blame at others, we’re missing the opportunity to make progress.
If I call you out as a terrific recycler, two things are going to happen. Some of your colleagues are going to think, “well, I recycle as well, how come Kathy didn’t call me out?” and try a little harder to get some attention. The other thing is you are going to be super self conscious about your own behavior. And if you weren’t a rock star recycler, you’re going to be one now because you don’t want anyone to see you throw an aluminum can in the trash after I called you a super recycler.
Instead of arguing about who’s really to blame, if we focus on who, at all levels, is moving us forward, we’re just going to get where we need to go a lot faster and, and hopefully like each other in the process.
What do you say to climate change skeptics?Increasingly, it seems like there’s less pure denial and more, “It’s all going to be fine and we don’t need to worry about it.”
So if you look at the Yale climate opinion stuff, in Dane County 7 in 10 of us say, “I’m worried about climate change.” OK. There’s another question that “I think climate change will harm me personally.” And it’s like 40%.
For me, that’s the crux of our challenge, not that small group of deniers. It’s the fact that there are people worried about this, but they’re worried about it in a kind of abstract way — it might affect someone in California or a polar bear, versus it has the potential to change the way my children live here in Madison.
Some of the (community supported agriculture) farms in our area are really struggling with these heavy rains. There are farms that are leaving CSA programs because they don’t feel like they can guarantee that customers will get carrots or potatoes or sweet potatoes in the future. That affects us right here, right now.
Know Your Madisonian: a collection of profiles from 2020
Know Your Madisonian 2020: a collection of profiles from our weekly series
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"We weren't going to get to where we wanted to go in terms of efficiency — and increasingly, climate action — just through more efficient appliances. We had to think about how to engage people."
In this Series
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