As CEO of ClearGen, a leader in transitions to renewable energy, Rob Howard knows what it takes to bring together multiple stakeholders in the world of energy policy.
For Howard, that collaborative mindset was forged through his courses at Sanford. Like many public policy students before (and after) him, he found that Sanford’s curriculum created connections between his interests in unique ways that opened up a new world of possibilities. Howard is now using Sanford’s signature mixture of theoretical and practical to solve energy problems through policy.
We recently asked Howard about how Sanford prepared him to become a leader in renewable energy policy.
What impact has Sanford had on your professional and/or personal journey?
I arrived as a freshman at Duke with hopes of studying history or classics, thinking that any “applied” major fulfilled little more than greed. Nonetheless, I took an intro course taught by (former Sanford professor) Fritz Mayer and loved it. The combination of social, historical and economic factors fascinated me. At Sanford, my academic interests often landed on topics in energy and developing nations, several led by Bill Ascher, which set me up for a career in energy.
The internship requirement was particularly daunting for me. I applied everywhere with limited success. But better to be lucky than good – I took a course during my junior year covering the relationships between Mexico, Canada and the US. The Canadian ambassador came to speak and I approached him after the class. He encouraged me to apply for an internship at the embassy in Ottawa and I took him up on it. But instead of Ottawa, I was assigned to the consulate in Halifax. I accepted, then went to find Halifax on a map. That experience led to my senior thesis, but more importantly, it gave me the confidence to take risks and leap at opportunity.
My Sanford initiation into energy was followed by a job in energy banking, then energy private equity investing, and now managing a company investing in innovative energy solutions.
Why does public policy matter in 2023 and beyond?
The energy and power industries are one of the clearest cases in which policymakers set the rules of the game, and then the industry plays it. Throughout the history of the electric power industry, policymakers have shifted the objectives from access to safety, to cost, to emissions, to all of the above. The public investors, private equity firms and project developers involved in this space are all eager to access the opportunities created by policymakers. Policymakers are faced with the challenge of rewarding those who delivered on earlier priorities while also creating new objectives based on new realities.
Other industries have similar policy influences, but the ones in which it is the most profound are those that deliver public goods. We have to recognize the influence, and policymakers need to appreciate their impact. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but public policy sets the stage for whatever follows.
What is the most interesting highlight so far in your career?
I could not be more proud of what we’ve created at ClearGen. We established the company to deliver financing into parts of the energy industry that have been historically overlooked, such as behind-the-meter generation. Historically this was only available to businesses that were highly motivated, energy-savvy and willing to invest in a non-core asset. We’ve made clean, cost-saving energy available to a new swath of the market, and that’s really exciting to me.
This has been my first experience with a start-up, and the ability to move quickly and witness the results – new projects and end-user outcomes – has been remarkable. In just three years we've put together a great team, invested a lot of money and enabled projects that would not have otherwise happened.
Terry Sanford implored students to 'stand for something.' What do you stand for?
I’m a strong believer in everyone’s capacity to pull off remarkable outcomes. Too often this capacity is quashed by systems and fear of mistakes. I’ve been privileged (or cursed) to have managers who threw me into the mix early and without much structure, and I’ve always found those to be the best learning moments. What I stand for is giving the next generation the opportunity to learn, to lead and to prove our stale ideas wrong.
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