Interview with Heather Zichal, CEO of American Clean Power Association (ACPA)

Interview with Heather Zichal, CEO of American Clean Power Association (ACPA)

From working alongside then Senator John Kerry while fighting for better fuel standards to founding & leading the first ever trade organization to represent the entire cleantech industry, Heather Zichal, CEO of ACP, has a lot to be proud of! Catherine spoke with Heather about her career journey in policy & cleantech; ACP’s 1st anniversary; ACP’s ability to help get the infrastructure bill passed; & the significance of the Build Back Better Act, including a robust plan to transition fossil fuel workers to the cleantech industry. What impressed Catherine most about Heather was her humility, never having imagined she would transition from a small town in Iowa to working in the White House, & her dedication to paying it forward in every way she can, including by doubling the women on ACP’s Board.


Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Heather Zichal. Heather is the CEO of American Clean Power. And she joins me from Washington, DC. Thanks for being part of the podcast, Heather.

Heather: Well, thanks for the opportunity to join you today, Catherine.

Catherine: I want to ask you a little bit about your career journey, and then talk a little bit about ACP. So tell me how you got into the industry and a little bit about the path that took to get there?

Heather: Sure. When I think about what I get to do on a day to day basis, I’m pretty sure I have the best job in Washington. I wake up every day thinking about how do we create new clean energy jobs? How do we be better partners and communities in underserved communities across the country? And how do we really tackle what is the largest threat of our generation, which is climate change? I have a long history of working in Washington, probably longer than I should admit, working in Washington, DC for 20 years. And I worked as a policymaker having worked in the House, the Senate, and as Obama’s chief climate adviser for the first six years of his administration. And then I’ve also, after that, worked in a number of nonprofits, with leaders and corporate leaders in sustainability, and today, I’m using the skill set, I’ve learned to sort of sit at the cross section of policy, politics and communications on climate and our trade association, and the American Clean Power Association, which you can learn more about at Which is the first trade association in Washington DC that speaks for all clean energy sources. So we are wind, both on and offshore or solar, we’re storage and we’re transmission.

Catherine: So Heather, tell me a little bit about ACP. And why ECP was founded a year ago, why did you all decide then was the right time to do it?

Heather: Well, I think this was a decision that was actually made by what was the board of the American Wind Energy trade association. And I think it was just a natural evolution, the member companies and board members sitting around the table in the early days, in the early 2000s, there were a lot of pure play, wind companies and OEM so it made sense to have that trade association. But over time, as these CEOs looked around the table, they came to the realization most of us are, the days of just pure play, wind companies are kind of to some extent over. We are now as you know, we’re CEOs of projects, and wind and solar wind and solar and storage and additional hybrid projects. And so I think that was data point one. Data point two was the fact that there was this recognition that now we are a trillion dollar part of the economy, we are over 415,000 workers strong, we need to make sure that we have the heft in Washington, DC to actually deliver on a very aggressive policy agenda and political agenda. So I think that’s when the board of what was then OWEA came together and said, Let’s pull together for the first time ever in Washington, a trade association to cover wind, solar, storage and transmission.

Catherine: Yeah, it just goes back to that whole just Stronger Together, we unite, our voices heard more loudly. Build Back Better plan. I’m just beyond excited to see that the infrastructure investment and jobs act was passed recently. But as we know, there’s still more work to be done. Can you talk about why the Build Back Better Act is significant, and what ACP is doing to ensure that it passes?

Heather: Yes. Well, as the head of the trade association, all of our over 600 members are really excited about the potential for what we see is the first time to have true regulatory certainty and predictability in our industry for the first time ever. President Biden ran on a platform that climate policy is economic policy. And that is really at the heart of the Build Back Better proposal. You are right that the bipartisan infrastructure bill, I kind of feel like it’s the redheaded stepchild, but because at the end of the day, the largest investment that this country has ever made was made in our nation’s aging electrical grid. So it’s really important that that legislation happened, especially as I am very optimistic that while it’s not going to be the Build Back Better version that we saw in in December of last year, but I’m very confident because there is so much broad support for the kinds of investments in wind and solar in storage and transmission, that a version of the Build Back Better is going to make it across the finish line. And what’s important for our member companies is, again, it’s just we have never really had more certainty and predictability than a one or two year tax extension. And so the longer companies understand what the confines of the policy that we have, as a country, on deployment of clean energy, again, we’re talking wind solar storage transmission, the better we are going to be and the faster we’re going to be able to create jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For that reason, it is a top priority for the American Clean Power Association, to help create the political space that Congress and the President needs to get get legislation robust climate package across the finish line, and I’m excited is you is the conversation around Bill Back Better, I mean, we’re talking about over a trillion dollars, the climate portion of that is one piece, there are a lot of really important social programs as well. But what I feel really good about is that there’s solid solid support for those climate provisions. And I think that support is really what’s going to help get us across the finish line. Our industry, for the first time, is stepping up and stepping in, we ran a multimillion dollar ad campaign in key congressional states, to underscore the importance of this legislation. We are on the hill with our member companies every day lobbying for these provisions, helping make sure people understand what kind of jobs these are going to create. The recognizing that this is not just about the wind blades themselves. It’s about where the steel in West Virginia that goes down to building the first drones, that compliant ship to build offshore wind turbines. So I’m helping make sure people understand the full scope of what we as an industry are really prepared to do to create those jobs and step up on the climate agenda.

Catherine: And I can imagine that you’re really trying to get bipartisan support for these initiatives as well.

Heather: Absolutely, we are in the industry playing for the long game. So while we’ve got democratic advocates in the White House and Congress today, frankly, clean energy and the jobs we’re creating should not be a partisan issue. And the more Republicans that I have personally been engaging, I think there’s broad recognition that those jobs are in blue and red states across the country, creating jobs in all 50 states. And that’s an economic opportunity that everybody across countries is looking for.

Catherine: Yeah, and purple, like Virginia. My next question is around fossil fuel worker transition. Another hot topic, an important element of the energy transition involves helping former fossil fuel workers smoothly transition into new careers, including clean energy jobs. Do you think we currently have effective mechanisms in place to help fossil fuel workers transition to the clean energy economy? And if not, what do you think is needed?

Heather: Well, I think that’s an excellent question. Anytime you’re turning a central power system to something new, and you’re trying to do that on a relatively aggressive timeline, because we’re looking at the climate science, we’re looking at the need to act. We’re focused on what can we do as an industry to help maintain an orderly transition? I think there we have a lot going for us. First and foremost, many of the jobs that we’re talking about, and even today, if you go on, Indeed, you can find there are over 1000 jobs just for wind technicians. And wind technicians and solar installations are some of the fastest growing jobs in the United States today. So what we’re learning is that the skill set for a lot of the oil and gas jobs can transition into the clean power sector and so we’re looking specifically at programs including some of the really exciting provisions in the Bill Back Better bill that focus on font helping fun programs to get that energy transition, right to focus on career pathing on measurable progress targets. And as an industry, we recognize the need to step up. And this year, we’re going to be launching an Energy Transition for All Initiative that I’m really excited about. So we’ll have more to say there. But long story short, it really is about pushing our industry to align around common objectives and really stepping up in communities across the country, to make sure this transition is as smooth and equitable as possible.

Catherine: Yeah, it is that inclusion piece. Everybody feels like they’re a part of it.Those who don’t know, ACP is celebrating its first year anniversary this month. Congratulations, by the way, what would you say are some of the top lessons learned from this first year? And what has ACP accomplished? The second part of the question is, what have you set out to achieve this year?

Heather: It’s an excellent question. Well, it is safe to say that in year one despite the fact that we are a small and mighty trade association in our first year, I think we put a lot of points on the board. First and foremost was making sure that we were engaged with policymakers on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed. Again, that bill had historic support for transmission, and we’re going to build wind and solar and storage and hybrid projects. But unless we have the ability to move those electrons throughout the country, we’re not going to be successful. So I can’t underscore the importance of the transmission policies that were included in that legislation. Second, we did a lot to help shape and craft Build Back Better, both the content of the legislative proposal, but also helping create political space. I talked about the fact that our industry, for the first time, launched a multimillion dollar campaign to create political spaces is important. Beyond that we hosted a number of really exciting events. And we did that in a safe manner. And some of them were virtual, luckily, a couple of them were even in person. But we were able to unite the top leaders around the country to engage with our CEOs in a dialogue about everything from project finance, to the opportunity that we have an offshore wind. So the fact that we were able to bring people together to figure out how we’re going to grow, continue to grow this industry in a real and purposeful way is really exciting. And then there’s just the day to day. Well, unless you’re an energy policy nerd, like the fact that today, we had this really exciting announcement that we worked with Biden Interior Department on a huge lease offering for offshore wind and in New York bight. So there’s the big, there’s the big winds, but there’s also this sort of more granular, really exciting winds that ACP has been lucky enough to help create. And then as we look to this year, obviously, our work is far from done. 2022 priorities are really continuing to advocate and get some version of a climate package through the United States Senate and through to the President’s desk for signature, I think we have a really good chance of doing that. And then I mentioned the Energy Transition for All Initiative that we’re going to be launching as well. And we’re we’re looking hopefully hoping that 2022 can really be a year where we’re able to kind of move beyond the virtual and hybrid events and towards the middle of the year, really get back to some of the the conferences and convenings that are so important, not only to share kind of what’s going on in Washington and bring in different thought leaders, but it’s also really important opportunity for our member companies to sort of we call it matchmaking, help people understand, what are different OEMs looking for? What are some of our IPPs looking for? And sort of pulling people together. That someday will hopefully be building 1000s and 1000s of megawatts of clean energy projects across the country.

Catherine: Yeah, well, I love matchmaking. Obviously, as a recruiter, that is a big part of my job as well. So I want to talk next about your career specifically. So for those looking to join and progress within our industry, can you share some of the key factors that have been able your success in this space? For example, things like WRISE or maybe mentorships? Or anything else that you want to highlight?

Heather: Yep. Well, first and foremost, when I think about showing up in Washington in 1999, and it was a, it was a pretty lonely place initially. So I think a lot of the programs like WRISE, and mentorships that have been developed over the last couple of decades are really, really important and great opportunities for young women at the beginning of their career to take advantage of. Also, I’ve personally been so lucky to have worked with so many wonderful mentors, which are incredibly important. And so whether it was, then Senator John Kerry helping me figure out how we’re going to count the votes and get fuel economy standards changed in the country for the first time in three decades. Or my early days in the administration, working with former administrator of EPA, Carol Browner, helping understand how to maneuver through White House deputies and principals meetings. Yeah, I just have been really, really lucky to have those mentors. And I think it’s really important for women and in our industry, in particular, especially in the energy sector, we have work to do, especially when it comes to diversifying our workforce and creating more career pathways for women. And that’s certainly going to be a part of what we as ACP focus on but I think another really important lesson that I’ve learned over the years is, is the need to pay it forward. Right? I didn’t get here, were it not for amazing people that were willing to roll up their sleeves and help me understand how to navigate Washington. And I’m very focused on not only what ACP can do to help on that front, but just personally making sure that I’m carrying those messages and providing the leadership. When I came into ACP I recognized immediately, we needed to make some changes with our board to ensure that we had broader diversification. And we’ve more than doubled, from what from year one to year two, are the women on our board, for example. So it’s about finding ways big and small to make progress and to pay it forward.

Catherine: Paying it forward really resonates with me, I think it’s so important to try and help people regardless of where they are in their careers by taking a few moments to answer any questions they have or giving them any knowledge that you may have to help them along the way. I think as women, it’s especially especially especially important that we do that, and really try and lift each other up. So looking back on your career, what is some of the work that you’re most proud of? And why?

Heather: Well, listen, I have been incredibly lucky to work in the positions that I’ve had. I grew up in a tiny little town in the middle of Northeast Iowa, and certainly never thought I’d make it to the White House. So being able to work in a White House and affect policies that lead to major outcomes on the environmental ledger is like being able to do that on such a huge scale, right. When I was in the White House, I was negotiating fuel economy standards for cars and trucks. I got to be part of the process to put in place the first ever standard for mercury emissions from coal fired power plants. I helped guide the decision making process around some of the really tough decisions about oil and gas production in the United States and making sure that we were balancing conservation and doing what we needed to be good stewards of federal lands. So across the board just amazing opportunities. And then, like I said, I get to wake up every day and think about how do I make sure that the Clean Energy sector is as successful as humanly possible on a very aggressive timeline. So I feel like I got incredibly lucky to land this position, and to sort of lead this industry at such a pivotal time against the backdrop of a once in a generation opportunity to pass a climate package in Congress. So it’s hard to put a fine point on whether it was this one thing or that other thing, but I actually think the most exciting thing about my career is that I have a reputation for getting things done, for being very fair and transparent, and for being a tough negotiator. So, I think the fact that I can carry who I am, into my professional career and find a way to be successful is something not a lot of people get to do necessarily, and so I celebrate and embrace that every day.

Catherine: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and I just really appreciate all the work that you and ACP are doing on our behalf.

Heather: Excellent. Well, I really enjoyed the opportunity to join you today.