After two decades of public service in obscure state offices, Maria Redmond is helping lead Gov. Tony Evers’ initiative to wean Wisconsin off fossil fuels.
Redmond is the director — and so far only employee — of the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy, which Evers created last year through an executive order to help the state achieve the carbon reduction goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and transition to carbon-free electricity by 2050.
Redmond, 42, grew up in Colorado and California before moving to Sheboygan when she was in high school. Today, she and her husband, a Madison firefighter, live on Madison’s East Side with their children, ages 6, 12 and 15.
After graduating from UW-Madison with a degree in psychology, Redmond landed a state job writing a report on former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s initiative to transition the state’s vehicle fleet to alternative fuels. That led to roles as a transportation fuels analyst and program manager in the State Energy Office, which she ran from 2015 until earlier this year when she was tapped to head the clean energy initiative.
Redmond has worked under five governors — three Republicans and two Democrats — who have tweaked the name and mission of the federally funded energy office to fit their own agendas.
“Each administration kind of has their own idea on how they want to approach energy,” Redmond said. “It’s just interesting to watch that and be a part of that. And still be here, which I think is kind of fun.”
What’s your mission at the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy?
What’s outlined in the executive order: To help the state to get to 100% carbon-free electricity consumed by 2050 and create opportunities of workforce development and clean energy. I think part of that is also a just transition. As we move away from our current energy consumption, making sure that employees that are in those current energy-generation jobs get moved into other types of work that they can do.
It’s going to be a concerted effort to transition to a clean-energy economy. You could go up to any citizen or any business and say, what do you think about transitioning to clean energy? I think most people would say that that’s a good idea. But there’s probably not necessarily consensus on how to do that. Or why to do it. Some people are coming at it from an economic perspective, some are coming at it from a health and benefits to citizens perspective.
There are a lot of folks working in this arena already who have a lot of expertise. Essentially my job is to develop a comprehensive clean energy plan that has all those voices and thoughts. What are the opportunities that we have here in Wisconsin, and can we bring everybody together to figure out how to do that?
How realistic is the 100% clean energy goal?
I think it’s really doable. Individually, folks are already on a path to move towards that. I think the utilities are already on that path. And I think what we really want to do is sync up the work and make sure that we’re all kind of moving in that same direction.
Every utility could shut off all of their coal plants today, but that would be very, very impactful — on communities and rates. It’s about affordability, reliability. There’s got to be a methodical approach to how we’re going to get there.
There’s an urgency as well. People are feeling an urgency , and the public really wants this and we should all want this to be done faster. Can we do it? Can we do it faster? I think we can, but I think, again, it has to be methodical. And we have to be looking at it holistically.
Where do we start?
Wisconsin is now part of the U.S. Climate Alliance. The utilities have their carbon-free goals. How can we kind of bring together what’s already happening and maybe by the end of the year have what I’ve been calling the “low effort, high impact” items that we could potentially move forward with at the beginning of the year.
Focus on Energy is already working on energy efficiency. What are the things that we can do with Focus on Energy? The agencies have programs like workforce development programs, and the Public Service Commission has the energy innovation grant program. There’s all these things that we could probably do something with out of the gate that don’t necessarily need to have a budgetary or legislative change.
And then there’s going to be the harder things, like mapping out how we get to 100% carbon free by 2050. That is probably going to take a little bit longer.
What I’d like to do is establish an ongoing effort of stakeholders that would meet into perpetuity. Basically create a mechanism that would be checking the reality against goals. So that years from now, when I’m no longer in this job, we can look and say we did it. My worry is that we would come up with a goal, but then we don’t have the tools to keep checking ourselves against that.
How do you convince climate science skeptics that clean energy is a good idea?
We’re a net energy importer and a net money exporter. If you transition to cleaner energy, it’s less money that we would be exporting out of the state. It lowers emissions. What does lowering emissions do for communities? It helps improve their health. What does improving health do? It makes people more prosperous. They’re having more healthy days, which means they can work or they can go consume goods. There’s this sort of domino effect. Even if you don’t believe in climate change, the clean energy transition is important. We can’t continue to operate with business as usual and expect benefits from that.
Sometimes people just need their voices to be heard. I like to have those tough conversations. I don’t mind if people come and talk to me about why they think that this is a bad idea.
I did have a discussion with a group that was challenging, but one of the things is the bottom line cost. Then we need to figure out the mechanisms to bring down that cost. That’s where the policy comes in. What are the tools and mechanisms? Do they already exist? Or is it something that we need to create? And how do we get you to a comfortable place that you could deploy technology and you wouldn’t be concerned and then over time, you’re benefiting from it.
I don’t see clean energy deployment as a problem, but it’s a challenge, right? And what we’re working on is the challenge that if we can find a solution, it has a ton of benefits for citizens.
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