In this conversation, we will be speaking with Linda Silverman, who recently retired from the US Department of Energy after spending over 30 years with this government organization. Ms. Silverman and I discuss how the USG energy focus has evolved over time, what the process for multilateral energy events looks like, and also her experience running the world-renowned solar decathlon competition. Hope you enjoy this wide-ranging conversation! DOE Profile: https://www.energy.gov/eere/contributors/linda-silverman
00:00 Karan Takhar
Hello everyone, this is Karan Takhar, and welcome to the Zenergy podcast. Over the past decade, India has done an impressive job of integrating renewable energy into its energy mix. For this Fulbright Podcast series, I sought to investigate the enabling factors and potential of India's global leadership in renewable energy with the focus on solar. This Fulbright series is broken down into Four Seasons.
This season we capture the views of high-level officials of the Indian Government and energy delegates from several African countries looking to India as a model; we'll try and understand how India continued progress in renewable energy development can strengthen its leadership position in the world stage and provide a new Avenue for global impact. In this conversation, we will be speaking with Linda Silverman, who recently retired from the US Department of Energy after spending over 30 years in the organization. Miss Silverman and I discuss how the USG energy focus has evolved over time with the process for multilateral energy events looks like and also her experience running the world-renowned solar decathlon competition. I hope you enjoyed this wide-ranging conversation.
Thank you so much, Miss Silberman, for taking the time. I really appreciate it and have been looking forward to speaking with a few, especially to learn about your experience working at the DOE for 30 years for people listening. Could you provide a brief introduction of yourself and like help us understand what led you to become interested in the energy space?
02:10 Linda Silverman
Sure, I kind of fell into the energy space. Uhm, I grew up in Miami Beach, FL, went to undergraduate at the University of Colorado and majored in finance and international business, and then I went to New York City and worked in the World Trade Center and worked on, you know, different things, but in the World Trade Center, I was working in commodities trading and then realized that I was really more interested in why trades were happening then that trades were happening and that led me to get a masters at Johns Hopkins, Global Advanced International Studies Science, which brought me from New York to, well, first to Italy, where I spent my first year, and then to Washington and through that, I found out about this presidential management fellows program had a different name at the time, and kind of got into that program, which is a two-year program for people coming out of their master's degrees. I didn't really know how to find a job, so I kind of fell into energy; somebody said, oh, there's they're looking at energy, and it was, uh, extremely hot day, and at the time, natural gas was considered, Uhm, you know, clean, environmentally friendly fuel and I was interviewing an office that dealt with natural gas, and I was extremely enthusiastic 'cause I was really hot, so literally, that's how I ended up at DOE. In my first years, I worked a little in that office that dealt with natural gas, but I also did a detail at the US Trade Representative's Office, which I loved, but the place for me. So I came back to DOE and then shortly thereafter fell into Bill Clinton had just been in that had just become president. It was really committed to climate change, and so I met somebody in the hallway, you know, which I got to know. He became kind of a senior guy in developing the first climate change action plan, so that was about 1993, and I ended up working on the domestic side a lot with the White House. It was before computers. Well, we had completely contact computers, but this was before the Internet, so I was kind of the keeper of the documents for the Government. I used to go over the White House and, like, take all the guts, you know, documents from across the Government, and so I kind of did that and then got involved in the international climate change negotiations in the run-up to Kyoto and worked on that until about 2000, and then I had two kids at that point and didn't want to travel so much internationally, so then I moved to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable energy at DOE, and I've had a lot of jobs there, but you know, from a climate perspective, I was really focused on the mitigation side that was really adaptation really wasn't getting much attention. So it was really all about mitigation, and DOE was really active obviously because 85% of the problem at the time was because of energy so dumb, and, you know, the office of Energy Efficiency and renewable energy, you know, it was kind of where it was at all mitigation, so I'd work there, and you know, got involved in wind and green power, workforce development and climate change, and local climate Stefen, my final job was at as director of Solar Decathlon, so it's a little long-winded way, but that was. That's a summary of my 30 years.
06:08 Karan Takhar
Just reflecting on your early days at the DOE and then obviously, as you progress, what were some of the qualities that you found to be valuable like maybe the entry-level positions like what would you look for?
06:24 Linda Silverman
Yeah, well, first of all, I should say that I never thought I would stay 30 years. I really thought, you know, a maximum of five years, but I kept getting good jobs, so even though I was at the same agency. I had a lot of interesting things. In terms of what at DOE, what I found It's helpful, Uhm, you know, it's different now than it was then, it's kind of more, much more technical, and I would say I wish I were, I had a more technical background than I do I have, you know, I'm good with numbers, and I understand economics and finance, but I don't, I'm not the engineer that a lot of people are there, but I think what really helps is having always keeping your eye on the prize, which is like ultimately the strategic reason why, you know, we're working on it. For me, it was always climate change and so really being always focused on the macro, even though you have to work in the micro, being focused on that, I think it's really important. To be a very good writer and never give your boss a deliverable that has not been edited and scrutinized, and, you know, make sure that everything that goes up to the next level, you know, doesn't have any grammatical problems. I mean, you wouldn't believe how that ends up being a really big deal. I've had Ph.D. folks work for me who couldn't, right, and it really made it really hard to manage them because I couldn't trust them. So you always want to develop trust. You want your boss to trust that you can do really good, you know, being nice, being really collegial, I think, that's something that DOE we always were, in fact, I didn't put in there, but I spent a year at the State Department, I'm working on the international climate change negotiations, kind of, you know, to get trained kind of and I realized how much I missed DOE, because daily there, you know, there's a lot of collegiality, there's a sense of humor, I think all that stuff is really important, not taking yourself too serious actually talking to everyone, treating everyone as if they're super important because you never know who's going to be your boss, so I think all that is really important. Uhm, really, you know, reading documents and paying attention to what it is you're working on, I mean that it's not rocket science, it's really being a good team player and just doing your best work.
09:14 Karan Takhar
I'm always curious about the international climate negotiations and like how that process works in terms of your decisions really getting made during that conference itself or is there are there like a lot of preliminary meetings where then everyone has like a clear understanding of what exactly is going to play out at the conference, Does that make sense?
09:39 Linda Silverman
Yeah, yeah. It's a good question. Actually, I don't think enough people ask it, so it's a very involved process, and I haven't done it for a while, but I'm sure it's the same, so on the US side before, first of all, there's a conference of the parties which everybody hears about, but there are usually two or three other international meetings that take place in Bonn, Germany, during the year, so you're always kind of moving between those, and then you end up, you know, at this conference at the party, but before that there was constant deliberation on the US side, so at the time that I was involved, it was mostly State Department DOE and EPA. They were basically fighting out policy positions and doing a lot of analysis and stuff like that, and so the US and every country know what policy positions they want to end up at, and then there's very strategic about, you know, what you offer and what you know, what you try and Offer Up and then you know where you're going to end up at, Uh, if you, if you understand my, so it's not like you're just winging it when you get to any of these big meetings, you've had policy positions, then written stuff, and it's gone through a lot of betting, and then when you get to the meetings, there are usually two-week meetings and staff like me or others, you know you break up into a million different. It depends on the part of the treaty that you're working on. Usually, you're you could be working on 15 parts of the treaty at the same time or the protocol, and so you kind of send you to know, everybody has their little part of the agreement that they work on, and you sit in a room and negotiate language with other people from other countries, but then you kind of hammer out decisions about stuff, and then there are certain issues that percolate that need some very senior kind of ministerial level people to make decisions about, so that's usually when the public becomes attentive, and that's usually right at the end. In the case when we were there with Kyoto, I didn't go together, 'cause I was pregnant, I couldn't go. I went to all the meetings beforehand, and I went, and I made the pre-trip to Kyoto, but. Uhm, you know, then Vice President Gore came, and at that point, you know, he went way above what anybody thought the US would agree, so in that instance, he did make a decision probably at the last minute or maybe if the decision was made and I was not privy to it, and that had to do with, you know, I think it was like 7% below 1990 levels or something, which essentially killed the treaty in the United States. So anyway, that's how it works; it's a build-up. It's a year-long or two-year-long process. I mean, that's all I did was work on that treaty, so there's a lot of work involved, a lot of domestic negotiations, and then you go over and have international negotiations. I will say I found the domestic side to be much more interesting and fun than the international side. The international is a lot of, you know, wordsmithing. It's a lot of sitting in a room, a crowded room, you know, and should we use will or shall or should or can or, you know, it's a lot of things like that, it's not that interesting, I think domestic policymaking was much more interesting for me.
13:53 Karan Takhar
What exactly about it? Is it like a debate?
13:56 Linda Silverman
It was at the time, I don't know what it's like now, but yeah, I mean, well, first of all, you have to do a lot of analysis and then, yeah, it's it was a lot of fighting with EPA I mean it really was, but it was really fun and then State Department, you know, would they were not technical they were kind of monitoring the fight, basically, and then also it's working a lot with the international office, so for example, there would be a lot of dignitaries coming through from all over the world to, you know, talk to the Secretary of Energy and the International Office would come to me, it seemed like on a daily basis to write talking points for whatever country because I knew where every country was coming from, and so I could kind of write what the country's position was, and then I would come up with talking points for the Secretary of energy, you know, So there's a lot of that there's a lot of analysis it's a lot of making sure people back at DOE understood what was going on in the international negotiations, so they understood the things that they were working on really mattered and, you know, I also had to find out what things were going on so that I could represent back to the State Department and you know what was happening in DOE, so it was, it was just very interdisciplinary, it was really, It's really had to be a people person. You had to be kind of analytical. It was just really; I found it to be really fun. The international, what was interesting was just being there and meeting a lot of people from other international countries, but the actual. Work is pretty tedious.
15:37 Karan Takhar
So, I was looking at BNF data on renewable energy capacity in the US, and how that has grown over time since 2000 to bar chart, and each bar Coal is 50%, and then gas is like 20%, so you can't you can see the color based on like how much percentage of capacity belongs to one certain power source, and you cannot really see any solar any wins until relatively recently and I'm just curious to hear your perspective as someone who's worked with the DOE for such a long time, like how you feel I guess renewable energy has evolved and whether back it was getting a lot of like emphasis within the DOE and how you feel it's kind of evolved from that angle.
16:35 Linda Silverman
Oh my God, I absolutely saw it; I mean, kind of solar and wind and renewable energy was kind of a joke DOE when I started working in it; there literally was not an ability for people to see that they would ever amount to anything, and it was really coal, nuclear, and natural gas kind of world for energy supply and that's one of the reasons Solar Decathlon began, right? So the idea for that began around 2000, and the idea was to get students to build these cool houses with solar, so that and then display them in a head-to-head competition and on the National Mall in Washington DC so that visitors and can Congress people, and the media could see these houses with solar on and this solar could provide 100% of the power. So that's kind of the reason Solar Decathlon started was really to show off all the work that was happening with the national labs and private industry that was still involved, but I would say, for the most part, it was kind of a joke. I worked a lot on the wind, which at the time was, you know, one of the more successful, but still, you know, the size of the wind turbines was very small, there were like 100 kilowatts, they were small at the beginning, and then, you know, they started talking about one MW size and you know, we were trying to the whole point I mean the whole thing that these offices were working on was just getting the cost of energy is down and the improved performance, So it was it's really gratifying to see those two renewables, in particular. I mean, they're dominant now. I got solar on my house last year, I mean, they're taking over, and you know now, with energy storage, which is finally getting its due, that can really be the game changer.
18:45 Karan Takhar
Do you know when exactly, what year, what years, or what time frame? That within the DOE that you felt like was slowly kind of moving in that direction?
19:01 Linda Silverman
Well, I remember when I was working in the wind, which is probably around 2005 and 2006 they had a 30% win report come out which nobody could believe was possible, but it was it got a lot of press it got a lot of attention so that and they were and you know wind costs were coming down, but I think, you know really, really when things took off during the Obama administration when there was the recovery at and DOE we got a ton of money and a lot of that money went into research and development, and I think, I think that really helped rapidly increase technical breakthroughs that brought down the costs and improve the performance of renewable energy and at the same time the respect for the energy efficiency side, you know, really like, you know, getting buildings to be much more efficient transportation, I mean, it's kind of started, I think, really in the Obama administration, is when I think things really turned around and allowed and allowed this country to whether the Trump administration from the energy side because so much happened before Trump came in, and then you know the money kept coming days during the Trump administration, so there's been a lot of UM, I think since then, but I would say during the Obama.
20:41 Karan Takhar
I see, and a few weeks ago, I actually had the opportunity to interview one of the co-founders of Sun Edison at one point in time, but 50% of the US Regulatory affairs staff for Solar was employed by Sun Edison, and they were relatively like a recent company that I think they were founded in 2003, 2004 and yeah, it's pretty incredible to see like.
21:10 Linda Silverman
Well, I think, and they had a different business case, they figured out a way to pay for people to put solar on their roofs, and I think that was kind of a.Game changer, you know, they changed the way people thought about how you finance rooftop solar which was extremely innovative and very effective.
21:34 Karan Takhar
I'm curious 'cause I know you ran the Solar decathlon just a few years back, and could you talk a little bit about that event and like what are some of the technologies that you feel are like coming up now in that space that might like to pave the way forward for the industry?
21:59 Linda Silverman
Well, what's been so amazing, first of all, that was the culmination of my career. I just absolutely loved being the director of that competition. I loved all the people that I met. I loved all the students. It became it's become international. Force, I mean. I think there's going to be; there's going to be one in India this year, so there, you know, they're all over the world in China, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. I mean, they're all over the world now. So what's so amazing about the sort of Kathleen for me was just getting fresh thinking students that are really dedicated to spending two years of their either undergraduate or graduate like, you know, designing and building. These are really innovative houses. So I mean, I used to know of all these things that all these products and techniques and processes that they, in some cases, developed don't remember so many, but I know structural insulated panels they, Uhm, they displayed those, they couldn't change the type of solar panels, you know, because it's to health and safety thing, but the way that they would use them, the way that they would use green walls in the house and and and use greywater and I that competition is really evolved beyond just displaying solar to being a building design competition and showing how beautiful homes can be that are designed to maximize energy efficiency and to still use renewable energy and be self-sufficient, and then you know. You now have all these ambassadors all over the world who were involved in it. So that's also really interesting. You have these young, vibrant people that are going into architecture and utilities and all types of aspects of the energy industry and finance and other things. So, I think over time, it's really helping to evolve the market in a really fresh way.
24:26 Karan Takhar
And how do you feel like this space? Are you optimistic about this space moving forward in terms of like how the energy kind of context is right now? Are you optimistic about how the landscape is evolving?
24:42 Linda Silverman
I really am. I have to say I have been so impressed with the level of sophistication and strategy vision of the Biden administration, you know, just having, Uh, climate coordinator in the White House, it's the first time that's ever been, Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi. I worked with Ali when he was in the White House and the Obama administration. I mean, getting the whole entire Government to be rolling in the same direction under the umbrella of climate and really elevating that as an existential crisis for the country is amazing and that all of these Cabinet secretaries are prioritizing what they're doing under the climate guys is fantastic. I think the budgets are going to reflect that. All of the policy and regulations that are happening makes me feel really optimistic because it really was not like that ever when I was there, and we were always hitting her head against; you know, you were always coming up against every department has its own goals and mission, and often it wasn't necessarily tied to climate, and so it was really hard to get all of the agencies to work together when our missions were so different. So the fact that the White House is saying this is priority one for every agency is. Game a. Game changer.
26:27 Karan Takhar
Thank you. I think that's a great way to end the interview. I mean, I really appreciate you taking the time. I hope you enjoyed that episode, and do check out the show notes For more information on my guest. See you next time.