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    EERE's New Associate Assistant

    For Janine Benner, energy conservation and sustainable transportation runs through her blood.

    The new Associate Assistant Secretary for the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) sat down to discuss her energy-saving parents, her own path to energy efficiency, and her new role with the Energy Department.

    QUESTION: HOW DID YOUR BACKGROUND LEAD YOU TO THIS ROLE?

    Answer: I grew up in Portland, Oregon, where clean energy and environmental protection are a way of life. My late mother was a math teacher who went back to school to learn how to design passive solar houses. She then became a leader in the field of building commissioning, a process to ensure that all of a facility’s systems – from HVAC to electrical to the building envelope – are coordinated to function most efficiently. In fact, when I was meeting recently with David Cohan, head of the Building Energy Codes Program, he told me that he had known my mom and had even attended a ceremony at which the annual “Benner Award for Building Commissioning” was bestowed on a deserving building commissioning practitioner. That was a very special moment to have on the new job, and personally gratifying to hear that my mom’s life work is still relevant to this day.  

    Before he retired, my father was a land use attorney and was integral to establishing and implementing Oregon’s landmark land use planning laws at the state and local level.  He now lives with his wife, a former sustainable transportation attorney, in what is likely the nation’s first ever urban infill, net-zero energy use, passive house designed, co-housing project. My family is pretty much straight out of a “Portlandia” episode.

    Q: TELL ME ABOUT A FAMILY MEMORY.

    A: In the health-conscious neighborhood where I grew up, it wasn’t unusual for people to hand out raisins to trick-or-treaters on Halloween. But my parents took that a step further by passing out energy-saving comic books featuring the characters ‘Wastey Watts’ (the bad guy) and ‘Watchy Watts’(the good guy).

    Q: SO, WHAT DO YOU GIVE OUT TO CHILDREN ON HALLOWEEN?

    A: Candy.

    Q: DID YOU STUDY ENERGY CONSERVATION IN COLLEGE?

    A: No, I studied medieval history. After graduating from Princeton University, I worked with the California Public Interest Research Group in Los Angeles as a consumer advocate. It was fun to fight against ATM fees and for toy safety, but I knew I really wanted to move into the energy field.

    Q: HOW DID YOU LAND IN WASHINGTON, D.C.?

    A: I got a job with Congressman Earl Blumenauer from Portland as his advisor on energy and environmental policy. In that capacity I had the opportunity to work on a number of pieces of energy legislation, including providing tax credits for distributed wind generation, decoupling of natural gas rates, and making hydropower more fish-friendly. I also worked on the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and the Waxman-Markey climate bill. Eventually I worked my way up until I was running the DC office, and really missed being able to focus on policy. So after 12 years on the Hill I moved down the National Mall to the Department of Energy when an opportunity opened up in the Congressional Affairs Office, where I became a Deputy Assistant Secretary. My focus was on working with Congress on supporting DOE’s broad mission – everything from carbon capture and sequestration to nuclear cooperation with Iran. But I jumped at the chance to get back to re-immerse myself in clean energy.

    Q: WHAT IS YOUR TOP PRIORITY?

    A: I want to help make sure there is broad recognition of the crucial role that EERE plays in advancing the clean energy economy and reducing carbon emissions. I also hope to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the EERE front office in supporting the amazing work being done by the various programs while at the same time supporting the collective strength of the entire organization.  

    Q: WHAT DO YOU SEE AS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE?

    A: Like so many of us, a big challenge for me will be keeping the big picture in sight and not getting caught up in all the day-to-day demands. Another is determining where to engage and add the most value, as some areas could benefit from front office engagement more than others. I'll continue working with the team to figure that out and strike the right balance.

    Q: WHAT DO YOU HOPE YOUR CHILDREN GAIN BY YOUR EFFORTS IN ENERGY CONSERVATION?

    A: My children, aged 2 and 5, are part of what drives my desire to push the envelope for energy technology and the ultimate goal of fighting climate change to leave them a better world.

    Q: WHAT ARE SOME THINGS YOU LIKE TO DO WHEN YOU’RE NOT FIGHTING FOR ENERGY TECHNOLOGY?

    A: With young kids, I find myself at the playground most weekends. I also like to hike, bike, and be outdoors. I love food – whether it’s trying new D.C. restaurants or cooking at home.

    For more about Janine Benner visit energy.gov

    Author: Michele Capots

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