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Kate Gordon

CEO and Fmr. Sr. Advisor to the U.S. Sec. of Energy

California Forward

May 22, 2024
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Ep 112: Kate Gordon - CEO and Fmr. Sr. Advisor to the U.S. Sec. of Energy, California Forward
00:00 / 01:04

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:00:57] Welcome to another episode of Energy Impact Podcast. I'm joined today by Kate Gordon, the former Senior Advisor to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm at the US Department of Energy. Kate, thank you so much for joining me. I'm really looking forward to our conversation today.

Kate Gordon [00:01:12] It's great to be here. Thanks, Maddie.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:01:14] Terrific. Well, let's go ahead and throw it way back, way back to your childhood. Tell me a little bit about where you grew up and went to school.

Kate Gordon [00:01:23] Yeah, it's a little complicated. I was actually born in Buffalo, New York where my dad was, at the time, at the law school at SUNY Buffalo; he was a young professor. He ended up moving to a job at UW Madison, which is mostly where I grew up. But my parents got divorced when I was pretty young, and my dad ended up moving out to Stanford.

Kate Gordon [00:01:45] And so, in sort of typical '70s joint custody free for all, I ended up switching schools every semester between Wisconsin and California for a large chunk of my upbringing. So, a lot of back and forth. A lot of very, very different experiences in those two places. Both college towns, but really different. And then, I spent a little bit of my sophomore year of high school in England as well. So, a lot of moving around, which I actually credit my long-standing interest in sort of place-based policy toward to all the moving and all of the experience of different places. But it was definitely an experience.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:02:30] I can definitely see that; I didn't realize that. I actually grew up in Neenah, Wisconsin. So, maybe an hour and a half northeast of Madison; lovely place there. But what where the main differences you noticed growing up between those two different worlds?

Kate Gordon [00:02:50] Wisconsin, at the time, especially... I think it's still a little bit like this, but it's just a lot more middle class, honestly. Like, there's a lot less income inequality in the Upper Midwest than there is in California. And I think even at that age, that was fairly clear. This was a time in Palo Alto, pre-tech, of course, but still like the early engineers. You know, Oracle was starting; some of the early tech companies like Hewlett-Packard. So, just a lot more money in Palo Alto.

Kate Gordon [00:03:24] And also, Palo Alto's really a suburb, whereas Madison is really a city. I mean, it's the capital of Wisconsin; it's a major university town. So, just a different feel going from Madison where I took a lot of public transit. I ran around and did stuff all the time. Obviously, in the winter it was very different. I grew up skating on the pond next to my house at Tenney Park on the east side of Madison. And then Palo Alto, just everybody drove everywhere; a lot less to do as a teenager. So, just a really starkly different experience.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:03:59] Yeah, I can definitely see that. What drew you out to London when you were still in high school?

Kate Gordon [00:04:06] So, I actually lived in Oxford for a little while. All things point back to my dad's job. He was teaching at Magdalen College at Oxford for a semester for a sabbatical, and so, my sister and I ended up going with him, which was really fun, actually. Oxford is just a beautiful, beautiful town. And the experience of going to school there was so different than the experience of going to school in the States. Just really interesting.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:04:32] Interesting. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Kate Gordon [00:04:36] You know what really struck me? I mean, obviously, but if you take history in high school in England, the history goes back to the 1500s; 1400s, 1500s. It's a very different... You're talking about an era that's before anything that anyone talks about in American history. And I just found the language instruction much better, I think, because of the proximity to Europe. There's just an actual real investment in people learning to speak a lot of different languages. People will end up working or traveling in places that speak French or Italian or Spanish or German. And so, the language instruction was very conversational, whereas in the States it tends to be a little more like rote grammar and sentence structure. So just very, very different.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:05:26] No, I definitely see that. I took probably four or five years of Spanish and couldn't tell you one thing.

Kate Gordon [00:05:34] I know; even in California it's sort of amazing that we don't teach Spanish more conversationally.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:05:39] Yeah. So, it sounds like you had a ton of influences, more from academia, when you were growing up from your dad and living in these different college towns. Where did you ultimately decide to do your undergrad?

Kate Gordon [00:05:51] So actually, my mom was really a huge influence on me as well. My mom had been a high school teacher and was a social worker for most of my growing up. And so, we were very involved. She roped us into working food distribution doing work in homeless shelters. So, I spent a lot of time with my mom when we were in Madison really doing social work, which ended up being a big influence on me later in my life.

Kate Gordon [00:06:19] And then, of course, my dad being a law professor, sort of having that proximity to academia... I ended up going to Wesleyan for undergrad. I graduated high school in Palo Alto. I really did not want to stay in California at that point. Both my parents are originally actually from New England. My mother's from Montreal; she's Canadian, or was Canadian. And my dad was from Boston, so a lot of my extended family's on the East Coast and in New England. I sort of felt a little bit of a pull toward living there, so I went to Wesleyan. Not everybody knows what Wesleyan is. It's a small liberal arts school in Middletown, Connecticut.

Kate Gordon [00:06:55] And it's funny to think about that decision. I have a 17 year old right now who's a junior and going through the beginning of college tours and thinking about college. It's reminding me how random it is. Everything comes down to your specific experience on a specific visit or what the weather was like that day. It's incredibly random, and I'm now living that again through her. But it fairly random that I ended up at Wesleyan. I ended up having a good experience there. I majored in American studies.

Kate Gordon [00:07:30] What was great about Wesleyan, it was very interdisciplinary. I played music; I played the viola, so I did a lot of music classes. I sang in two a capella groups. I did a lot of sociology, a lot of history, American Studies, English. And I really got a fairly wide range of classes. A lot of very good African-American studies, which was sort of an emerging field at the time. And that take on interdisciplinary learning also has been super influential to me because my work has been very interdisciplinary. So, I really credit Wesleyan with that.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:08:14] That's so interesting. Yeah, I also went to a liberal arts... Well, a liberal arts college within the University of Michigan. And I really found just how I apply those style processes to be able to take in a lot of diverse, let's say, pieces of data. You can think about it really quantitatively, but even qualitatively, reading different source materials but needing to come up with my own argumentation. Where have you seen that play out the strongest in your current or previous work?

Kate Gordon [00:08:48] I think I'm extremely interdisciplinary in my work. It's interesting, I'm sort of unusual in the climate space, policy space, in that I didn't come out of an environmental sciences background. I was more focused, in undergrad, really focused on sociology and human systems. And I wrote my whole undergraduate thesis about how the physical design of cities over the 20th century both excluded certain people and included certain people. So, really about sprawl and suburbia and exurbia. I've always come to my work with this sense of systems and people working within systems and how that affects opportunities and challenges and exclusion. So, I think it's been meaningful in general.

Kate Gordon [00:09:40] I went from Wesleyan to move back out to California, because like many people graduating college, I didn't have a job in hand. 1994 is when I graduated, and it was not a great time to get a job, so everybody was temping. It's just such a specific thing of that era. Everybody temped and everybody had that experience. I mean, I literally learned to use one of those dictation machines where you use your foot to push the button.

Kate Gordon [00:10:11] So, I was temping and I moved back out to the Bay Area. I ended up working in a homeless shelter part time. And then, at a tenant rights advocacy organization that I ended up becoming the program director of. So, I basically did tenant organizing for about a four-year period in between college and grad school. Very much focused on these questions of the direct service or organizing side of working with people experiencing a lot of different structural challenges. In this case, because of housing shortages and just a lot of really bad, illegal behavior from landlords.

Kate Gordon [00:10:52] So, I did that. And I think that also was sort of a natural extension in some ways of work I'd done both working with my mom on the social work side, but also, really thinking about systems change in undergrad. Which led me to go to law school to become a tenant lawyer.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:11:13] Wow.

Kate Gordon [00:11:15] Which is funny to think back on. I actually did work as a tenant lawyer in East Palo Alto for a summer. But I pretty quickly realized that my interest and strength is really in systems change and in, again, thinking about tactical ways to change systems so that the conditions are better on the ground rather than sort of fighting one eviction and then fighting it again in two weeks when the person gets another notice. So, I went to law school. I ended up doing a joint degree with city planning and getting really focused on economic development as a key tool and getting to that systems change and increasing opportunity for people. So, it's kind of a journey.

Kate Gordon [00:11:58] It's interesting... I tell this story a lot because people always want to do informational interviews and I'm always like, "Your journey is not going to be linear at all." A lot of this had to do with who I met at what time and what specific things happened at what time and who I was inspired by, you know?

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:12:15] Yeah. Did you have any pretty strong mentors throughout this period? I would foresee especially... You get a law degree, you're a tenant lawyer, and then you want to pivot a bit into more systems. Did you have either a mentor or, let's say, a figure you were looking to to make that career shift?

Kate Gordon [00:12:37] It's interesting. I think about this a lot. I have mentored a fair number of people, but I myself don't have a lot of mentors. I think it might be partly just how much I moved as a kid. I have a very ingrained sort of ability to learn systems really fast and get to know people at a superficial level very quickly. But it takes me a long time to really develop deeper relationships just because I didn't live anywhere longer than six months.

Kate Gordon [00:13:08] But in this case, I will say that Joel Rogers, who is the head of an institute at the University of Wisconsin which was called... I think it's changed its name now, but it was called COWS, Center on Wisconsin Strategy for a long time. He's a lawyer also, but then he's also in the sociology department. And he had started this institute really to look at very similar things to what I was interested in, these systems, tax systems, economic systems, industry growth in Wisconsin, and sort of focus on how to provide more opportunities. He did a lot in workforce development, a lot of economic development. And when I was a practicing lawyer after law school...

Kate Gordon [00:13:52] I'd known Joel for a long time; I actually had known him since I was pretty young. But he'd come and spoken at a big symposium I put together at the law school when I was the editor-in-chief of the Labor and Employment Law Journal. And I called him up. I was sort of casting around for ideas because my law firm was going through a lot of upheaval, making it a very difficult place to be a young lawyer. Like, I just didn't have a lot of mentorship or a lot of direction.

Kate Gordon [00:14:23] And so I called him up and he basically said, "Why don't you come here? This is a great place to do work. You could be a big fish in a small pond. It's Wisconsin; there's a lot of opportunity. Come to the institute and work on these issues there."

Kate Gordon [00:14:37] And so, I ended up going to work for him at a really fortuitous time, because he was just starting with some other people to ramp up a project to look at bringing together labor, environment, community, and business stakeholders around a pivot to a clean energy economy, and looking at that as an economic development challenge and as a workforce development challenge. And so, I was in on the ground floor of what became the Apollo Alliance, which was the first green jobs organization in the country. And I ended up running that. That was sort of the beginning of this whole phase of my career.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:15:16] Wow. Okay, that's fascinating. And yeah, so fortuitous. What were some of your early projects with that initiative? Because it seems like, honestly, a huge thing to tackle, especially not having a guide, having it be the first green jobs program. What was your specific role starting, and then, throughout your time there?

Kate Gordon [00:15:37] So, I was the program director from the beginning. The way Apollo was organized was we had a centralized... What we called the Apollo Strategy Center, based in Wisconsin, which did policy development strategy, some communications work. And then, there was a DC arm that did all the federal policy engagement. So, we did state and local and they did federal.

Kate Gordon [00:15:58] And then, we had affiliates. We had, I think up to maybe 15 affiliates around the country. So, Apollo Alliances at a state or local level that then brought together those same stakeholders: business, labor, community, and environmental organizations around specific campaigns. So, there was a lot to play to. It was, again, a really great time to be doing this. This was exactly 20 years ago; we started Apollo in 2004.

Kate Gordon [00:16:27] We did some of the first renewable portfolio standard campaigns through the Apollo Alliance. We did some of the first renewable fuel standard campaigns. We helped write the green jobs bill that, at the time, Congresswoman Hilda Solis put forward. We actually drafted... We put out the big first report on the job and economic opportunity from clean energy transition, which was called New Energy for America. And that became the basis of the green jobs platforms for the Obama, Clinton, and McCain campaigns in 2008. And then, we did a ton of work on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So, tons of...

Kate Gordon [00:17:08] We kind of brought together all of the people who had been thinking about... Super interesting... Thinking about this pivot, not, frankly, immediately from a climate perspective. But remember, at the time we were importing natural gas. This was back when we were not energy independence. So, there was a real bipartisan focus on becoming more energy independent, developing more domestic energy systems for energy security reasons. And that became a big driving force along with really a focus on economic development at a time when a lot of people were really reeling, still, from the loss of manufacturing jobs after NAFTA and just feeling incredibly hard hit by that.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:17:51] Yeah, that's one area where... I'm definitely not as practiced in the labor side of the energy transition. But from your experience, does it seem to be, let's say, reactionary? Like, there's a lot of concern as we're transitioning to renewables that those fossil fuel jobs will be lost, and so, there need to be policies in place to react to that and ensure that? Or, is it more proactive, where some of these policies are advocating for like, "Oh no, we actually can create new, totally different jobs, and let's get people thinking about them." Is it that binary? Which one is the stronger message, let's say, when you're in Wisconsin? Small, rural communities who maybe just don't understand all the options that are out there.

Kate Gordon [00:18:39] I think it's a little, maybe binary. There's a lot going on. I mean, if there's one thing I've learned over 20 years of doing this work in a lot of different places, including internationally, it's extremely place-based. The answer to that question really depends on where you're doing the work. Absolutely, in some places... When I was in the federal government and also actually working in state government in California... I've done a lot of energy transition work in fossil fuel communities. California's a big oil and gas producer. Obviously, the country's a giant fossil energy producer.

Kate Gordon [00:19:11] And if you're going to a place like St. John's, Arizona, where the town has three separate coal plants closing down within 60 miles and that's the vast majority of the jobs. The mayor of St. John's works in the coal plant, right? I mean, it's the vast majority of the tax base. There is a real urgency in figuring out a path forward. It's not exactly reactive, but it's a recognition that these places that were built around fossil fuels were built...

Kate Gordon [00:19:49] The towns exist because of the resource, right? It wasn't like there was some magical confluence where you happened to have a bunch of people living somewhere and then you happened to find a coal seam. Like, the towns exist because of the resource. And that means that it's deeply ingrained in the culture, in the economy, and the value of the houses and what's paying for taxes. Finding a way to diversify those economies into something more resilient that is more sustainable is a huge, urgent situation. So I think in those cases, it is a transition conversation.

Kate Gordon [00:20:25] But in a lot of cases... I mean, there are towns in Northern California that lost their timber industry 25 to 30 years ago and have not pivoted. It's less urgency, but it's still dire, right? You've got towns like that that lost manufacturing in the Midwest all over the place. So, I think it just depends. I mean, for the labor movement, what's so important and why it was such a key part of Apollo...

Kate Gordon [00:20:53] What we have realized and I've realized in doing this work over a long time and a lot of others have to is... In order for the economic transition to a clean economy to work, you can't just create a bunch of "not great" jobs that are temporary and that aren't going to be pathways to anything. We really have to think of this as a rebuilding of the middle class, as a rebuilding of a more diversified economy overall, and that means creating really good jobs. And the reality is that unions are the best way to do that. They're not the only way to do that, but if people are able to organize into a union, their role is to push for better jobs and benefits and pathways and training.

Kate Gordon [00:21:37] So if you have a union, then those things are true, which means that you're automatically increasing... And there are tons of data on this. You're increasing economic mobility, you're increasing diversity, you're increasing pathways for people that have been left out of the economy in the past. It's a very good way to do that. Again, not the only way, but really important. So, I think there are tons of opportunity, Maddie, but there's also just the reality that we're transitioning from one very specific economy to an entirely different kind of economy.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:22:06] So true. Yeah, yeah. Definitely true. And that's fascinating. I didn't even realize that that's where this conversation would go. Is your experience with labor in this green transition something that you focused on when you were at DOE? What was the transition like between the two?

Kate Gordon [00:22:23] Yeah, so just to fill in the background... I did Apollo. Apollo ended up merging into what is now the BlueGreen Alliance, which was started out of Apollo. Green For All also started out of Apollo. Van Jones was on our board, so he started his organization too. And then, I went to Center for American Progress. I had a number of years at think tanks doing work related to the energy transition. Increasingly, work related to climate impacts on the US economy. So, a big phase of that. And then, I went into California government, into the governor's office at the beginning of Governor Newsom's term, then to federal government.

Kate Gordon [00:23:02] So, it's been a theme throughout, I would say. Certainly at Department of Energy, a big piece of what I did when I was at the department... Which many of your listeners will know well, I'm sure, because they're looking at funding from the infrastructure bill and IRA, was to co-create the community benefits plan structure. So now, Department of Energy, for the first time ever... First of all, for the first time ever, has become a deployment agency. I think you can't underscore how big of a shift that is.

Kate Gordon [00:23:35] DOE is like a research and science organization. Like, if you saw Oppenheimer, that's the foundation of the organization, right? It's very research and science heavy, 17 National Labs, huge amounts of basic research. With the infrastructure bill passing, and now IRA, all of a sudden you have $100 billion of money at the Department for deployment for steel-in-the-ground projects, demonstration projects. So, transmission projects, EV charging projects. That is a big, big shift for the organization. It required us to, while I was there, restructure the whole organization. The secretaries have created an Undersecretary for Infrastructure at the same level as the Undersecretary for Science. So, that's a very big shift.

Kate Gordon [00:24:20] And then, it just required that all of a sudden these program folks are putting money out the door. And they're doing grants where it's a 50/50 match. They're doing loans where they're going to be in a loan relationship for decades with these companies. So, we realized... The Secretary realized pretty quickly that these projects are going to be significant in the places where they exist. For many of these places, these will be the single biggest economic drivers in the place.

Kate Gordon [00:24:48] Think of Kemmerer, Wyoming. The middle of Wyoming; 2,300 people. It gets a grant for a TerraPower plant, a small modular nuclear reactor. That plant is going to hire 1,000 construction workers just for the construction phase, right? I mean, think about the impact of that on that town. So, that's happening all over the country.

Kate Gordon [00:25:09] And we realized that we needed to actually do more to ensure that the projects would actually work in the places they were being proposed. That there would be sufficient conversation with the community. That there would be a pipeline of workers. That there would be attention to job quality and pathways into those jobs. All of those pieces that are sort of necessary for project viability, we baked into the application process through requirement of a community benefits plan.

Kate Gordon [00:25:37] So to your labor question, a big piece of the community benefits plan actually is this whole question of job quality. And again, a labor union's not required. But certainly, if a company is working with a labor union and is developing a relationship and ideally, a contract through a project labor agreement, that is a very, very big plus on the side of DOE knowing that project will be built well with skilled workers, and that it will provide real economic opportunity to the place where the project is sited.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:26:09] Yeah, I'm going to pick on you, like the skilled workers part. For that, if we use Kemmerer as an example, building a nuclear project that's never been built before in a town of 2,500 people... I'm guessing not everybody in that town has a degree in nuclear engineering or even construction. How do you balance? Let's say we need the skilled labor to complete the project. We want to hire as many local staff as possible, but will we be able to bring them up to speed and give them enough training on this niche thing in time to get it built? Or, are we going to have to bring in other people, which is if anything, maybe displacing some jobs? How have you thought about that, either specifically as an example or across the DOE programs?

Kate Gordon [00:26:59] I think it's an important thing to think about at a high level. And then, I can talk more about Kemmerer. But most of the jobs... And I know this from research that we did with the Berkeley Labor Center when I was at the state government; I know this from years of doing this work. Something like 60% of all the jobs created in clean energy are in construction. So, construction is a major, major factor when it comes to what green jobs look like. They're not some specialized, new thing no one's seen before. They're mostly construction and manufacturing. And then, there are some specialized skills on top of that, such as your nuclear engineers, your power system engineers.

Kate Gordon [00:27:34] Given that, the good news is that we have an incredibly robust construction training operation in this country. Again, thank you labor unions. Remember, unions collect dues from their members. A big chunk of those dues goes into training. About $2 billion a year gets spent on training. In the construction industries, NABTU is the big, overarching building trades association. So, there is an apparatus in place. There's basic training, there's stackable credit, there are apprenticeships, there are pre-apprenticeships. Like, there's a whole system. And this is one of the reasons that the nuclear industry really likes the building trades and vice versa. Nuclear is one of the things in the clean energy economy that creates really good, high-level jobs that are long term.

Kate Gordon [00:28:22] So, going back to Kemmerer, are there enough existing trained workers in Kemmerer? Probably not. But there is a system that is portable that you can use to do training on site, essentially. So, I think there's a lot of opportunity for trainers to come in from other places. And there's increasingly a lot of discussions... Super interesting, about using AI for training in this space because a lot of construction and manufacturing workers are retiring, at retirement age. So, how do we think about capitalizing on retiring folks, but also, what elements, what modules can AI actually be used for, can VR be used for in training? I think it's super interesting and really, there's a lot of opportunity there.

Kate Gordon [00:29:08] The issue with construction is the jobs have to be decent jobs. There's no shortage of workers in this country who want good jobs; there's a shortage of good jobs. And if my choice is between working at a McDonald's for $17 an hour and working in construction for $18 an hour, which is what some lower-paid folks get, why would I take on a construction job with the level of risk, with the level of potential personal injury, with the intense, long days? Why would I take that on if I'm still not getting benefits and I'm still getting the same amount of money? We've got to be paying people who are building the clean energy economy what they're worth, because this is a giant, all-hands-on-deck moment.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:29:55] Agreed, agreed. That's fascinating. And I didn't mean to skip too fast straight to the Department of Energy. But if you could just talk to me... Picking the theme of, let's say, impact. It seemed like your role at Apollo and even as a lawyer working on these tenants' rights issues, the impact was real and it felt very immediate. How have you viewed your impact changing as you went into the think tank space, and then working for the governor's office in California, and then ultimately at the federal level? How have you seen your impact changing?

Kate Gordon [00:30:34] It's a great question. I think the higher up you get, certainly the further away you get from the people that you're directly helping. So, going from being an organizer and doing direct service and as a lawyer to working at the federal government, certainly, varying levels of proximity. But I think what I've been able to do is take those lessons of being on the ground and use that to create systems to help push policies that then create the opportunity for people to do that work on the ground, if that makes sense.

Kate Gordon [00:31:10] So in California, one of the big things that I helped create was this Community Economic Resilience Fund, which is now called the California Jobs First Program. And that was us providing planning dollars and implementation dollars for economic development to every one of the 13 regions of the state. We created that during COVID.

Kate Gordon [00:31:33] COVID was a real wake up call to everybody, but particularly those of us in the economic development community where we realized this current economy that we're all working in gets hit by that economic shock and it was just not resilient. In the face of that, we did not have the supply chains that we needed to have to keep trade going. We did not have job quality to allow people to actually... People were not covered by insurance. People were not able to recover. A huge disproportionate impact of COVID, obviously, on people of color as well as people without money. I mean, it was really stark.

Kate Gordon [00:32:12] So in the governor's office, we created this Community Economic Resilience Fund, essentially to say, "Every region of California is in this moment of transition where we've experienced the shock, we're realizing we need to recover from it and also build out just a more resilient system across the state. And that that's really going to look different if I'm in the Eastern Sierras than it is if I'm in San Francisco, than it is if I'm in the Imperial Valley. It's just different everywhere." So, we created this system to provide planning dollars for stakeholder groups to come together to figure out plans, and now they're working through their long-term strategies.

Kate Gordon [00:32:49] And I use that example, because essentially what I feel like we did with that was to create not just a framework, but also provide funding for very similar processes to what I did at the Apollo Alliance with stakeholder groups on the ground to get people to create a table around which people can sit, provide capacity for people to engage, and then creating these shared visions of what their economy should look like. 90% of those regional conversations are about clean energy because that is the economic transition we're in right now. So, I think it's a really good reminder that the energy conversation, the climate conversation is not separate from the economic conversation. This is where we are. Climate is affecting the economy, and clean energy industry is one of the fastest growing parts of the economy.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:33:37] Interesting. Yeah, and California seems to always be the leader when it comes to clean energy and transition. But at the same time, huge growing pains, let's say, associated with some of those policies. Especially in terms of, let's say, taxes being higher and other mitigants like that. But is there one major lesson in California? Of course, it is pretty place-based and a very different economy than, let's say, Wisconsin or even Arizona, or New England. Is there any major lesson that you drew from your experience in California that you could say, "Every state should adopt 'blank' policy?"

Kate Gordon [00:34:18] It's interesting... In a way, it's very different. California is really big. I had not realized quite how big until I was in government. And much of my work has been in the Central Valley, which actually looks a lot like the Midwest in terms of the economy; it's a very agricultural-driven economy. Oil and gas is the driver of the economy in Kern County and parts of LA county. So, our vision of California is very urbanized and very coastal, but a lot of the state is not that. It really does look different in different places.

Kate Gordon [00:34:53] California's been a leader in terms of regulation on climate, for sure. Absolutely, the cap and trade, the system set up by AB 32 in 2006... Setting up a cap and trade system and the low-carbon fuel system was very, very important. Providing a market-based system where there is actual value attached to doing a particular kind of fuel mix or to avoiding emissions is really significant. And of course, when California did it, the state thought it would be the harbinger of a national system, and it ended up not being. But it has been a really, really important driver. Particularly the low-carbon fuel standard, which has really driven, frankly, most of the carbon removal projects that are happening because of a combination of federal policy and that. So, I think it's super important.

Kate Gordon [00:35:49] California has not actually been a leader as much on building up a whole clean energy economy through the supply chain. So, California has been very good on installation. I think you can point to lots of policies, whether it's the fuel economy standards that have really pushed the market for EVs, whether you point to the very high renewable portfolio standard. Again, setting up this market for low-carbon fuels. But California has has not... There's a lot of innovation, there's a lot of installation. There's sort of a missing middle.

Kate Gordon [00:36:31] The state has not actually capitalized as much as I think it can and should on driving clean energy manufacturing. And I think there are a lot of reasons for that that are somewhat complicated but have to do with the tax structure and local control over land use decisions and things like that. But other states, I think, have actually done that better.

Kate Gordon [00:36:55] And you can see that playing out with the spending from the infrastructure bill, because none of the first round of battery grants for manufacturing went to California, for instance, which is super interesting. It's something that I'm personally very committed to, trying to really rebalance the California economy a bit so that we're really playing in that whole sandbox of the clean energy supply chain.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:37:21] Interesting. Okay, then in terms of the specific transition... So, you went from state, correct, to DOE?

Kate Gordon [00:37:29] Yeah.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:37:29] Did Secretary Granholm give you a call? She saw your work going on in California and wanted you on her team? Or, did you call them up? How did that happen?

Kate Gordon [00:37:38] She did. So, I've known the Secretary since she was governor of Michigan. We worked together very closely when I was at Apollo. She was very involved in the early conversations around what became the Clean Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit in the American Rescue Reinvestment Plan, which has now gotten significantly more money through IRA. Wonky people listening will know it as 48C, but it's that program.

Kate Gordon [00:38:01] So, I knew her from way back. When she left her role as governor, she came out to California, teaching at the Goldman School at Berkeley; she did a number of things out here. One of the things she did was start an organization called the American Jobs Project, which really was designed to do a lot of what we've been doing, which at Apollo was looking at the individual industries and the actual job creation, sort of breaking out a wind turbine into its component parts and figuring out what state was in the best position to pivot to do that work. That was very much based on her time in Michigan dealing with the transition of the auto industry.

Kate Gordon [00:38:41] And so, she asked me to be on her board of the American Jobs Project. I was on her board for a number of years and have stayed in close touch with her. Immediately when she was appointed, I, of course, wrote her a note and said, "Thrilled you're there. Would love to help however I can." So, she did call me. I was super honored that she did that. And I was able to come in as a senior advisor and not move away from California. I commuted from California to DC for two years for that role.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:39:11] That's lovely, and obviously well-deserved based off of all of your experience to date leading up to that time. Did you advise her specifically on labor or on the economic transition to green energy?

Kate Gordon [00:39:23] My role was primarily, as she described it, coming in to help DOE shift toward a place-based theory of energy investment. I really did a lot of internal work to define and educate folks across the agency on what place-based even means. The general idea is that energy is a very local issue, actually, and it plays out very differently in different places. So, starting that conversation is inside.

Kate Gordon [00:39:53] And then, once the infrastructure bill passed, a huge amount of my time was spent on implementation and on co-creating this community benefit structure. I spent a significant amount of time just reviewing all of the funding opportunity announcements for some of those key programs. I also staffed her on the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities, which she runs. She administers that White House interagency group based on the climate executive order that came out, the big first climate executive order created that group along with creating Justice40. And so, we played a huge role on that group.

Kate Gordon [00:40:33] We had multiple agencies, multiple White House officials co-chaired by the Domestic Policy Office for Climate and the National Economic Council. So, I ran that, essentially, as her staff. And we put out two reports to the president and did a significant amount of work. We created a great clearinghouse website,, where now all of the amazing funding opportunities that are directed at energy transition communities, you can see all those opportunities. So, really a phenomenal experience.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:41:09] Of all those different projects that you worked on, which one are you the proudest of?

Kate Gordon [00:41:16] I think I'm proud, generally, of playing a role of real dot connecting and just introducing people to each other. One of the things about the federal system is it's siloed... Which I'm sure everybody knows, because folks listening have probably applied for grants and are super frustrated about how hard that is. It's siloed because Congress appropriates these bits of money in different programs, and you can't blend and braid them very easily. There are a lot of legal restrictions to doing that.

Kate Gordon [00:41:49] I really tried while I was there... And I'm still doing this, actually, in my role on the Secretary's Energy Advisory Board which I'm on... I really tried to just generally have a sense of what was going on across the agency and other agencies and just connect the dots as much as possible. Bring people together, introduce people to each other. Learn things across programs. If somebody had gone through some learning, take that and build a community of practice.

Kate Gordon [00:42:18] That's a role that, unfortunately, isn't that common. It's what I did at the state level as well in my role as the Director of the Office of Planning and Research. In the governor's office, the role there is to connect agencies to each other on long-range planning issues and climate issues. I've played that role a lot; I really like that role. I love connecting people. I love, again, that interdisciplinarity synthesizing. So, I'm proud of that, generally.

Kate Gordon [00:42:46] I'm very proud of the Community Benefits Plan. I think developing a structure like that within a very bureaucratic agency that is full of scientists and engineers was a real labor of love, not just for myself, but for Shalanda Baker, head of the Office of Energy Justice and Betony Jones, head of the Office of Energy Jobs; Wahleah Johns at Indian Energy. We really worked together on that and, I think, created a set of conversations that simply were not happening between companies and the communities where they're based.

Kate Gordon [00:43:21] And I think as we in America are building back to this kind of economy that actually does have things made here by people, that does have a certain amount of critical mineral mining again, that does bring those supply chains back onshore, those conversations are so critical. And we sort of lost the muscle. American business had sort of lost the muscle of how to do that. So, I think we're trying to rebuild the muscle. That's what the Biden administration is doing. It's a long game, but I think so important.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:43:55] Agreed. Yeah, that's going to be really critical, making sure that we have the manufacturing capabilities here in the US and that we're willing to pay the price, really dollars, for that higher quality and to have those jobs here.

Kate Gordon [00:44:12] Just really quickly... There's so much transition happening. It's not just this energy transition because of net zero commitments and because we're worried about climate change and our Paris Agreement. It's really also a geopolitical transition. We are in a different posture with China, in particular, than we were 10 years ago. That is significant. It's a climate transition. Climate impacts like COVID will continue hitting supply chains. We need to be more resilient in the face of that. We need to be starting to build... Every country needs to be starting to build more resilient domestic supply.

Kate Gordon [00:44:46] It's also an energy transition just from a... Look, from a set of just a few inputs: oil, gas, coal, that are mined, extracted, refined, and then globally traded to a set of inputs that are super local and connected by wires. That is a really different kind of economy. So I think all those things together are shifting the investment environment, the political environment. That's how we got the infrastructure bill to be bipartisan.

Kate Gordon [00:45:23] There are all kinds of reasons for that, from the "worry about China" reasons to the "domestic labor" reasons; those come together to create this kind of economy. And so, I think we are in a really new moment right now. Not just in this country, but everywhere. And what's exciting about it is that we're in a moment where we can actually rebuild in a way that is more inclusive and more sustainable and more resilient.

Kate Gordon [00:45:48] You're absolutely right; it will take time. It is high touch. It will cost a little bit more. But will it cost more than the risk of your entire factory being underwater? Will it cost more than a tsunami hitting you? Will it cost more than all of the oil platforms going down in the Gulf because of a hurricane and suddenly your energy prices are way higher? I don't think so. I think at the end of the day, I think it is less volatile and more consistent.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:46:21] Yeah, I one hundred percent agree. And it's hard, especially when you're talking to local communities. That's such a far reaching view into the future of what feels like a possibility. Whereas, my current job right now is very, very real to me. So yeah, I can definitely see that. I know you're currently writing a book, so I definitely want to get into that. Are these themes going to be present in that book?

Kate Gordon [00:46:47] Yeah, the book is something I started, actually, before I went into state government, but it's shifted a bit because of all these experiences in the last five years. It really is about an economic development approach to the energy transition and a place-based economic development approach. And a lot of it is my own personal experience over that arc from Apollo Alliance, really through the Green New Deal, into the Bidenomics of the Biden administration. But all of the very specific experiences along the way with a lot of different communities.

Kate Gordon [00:47:19] So yeah, it is very much on this theme. I just have to finish it; I'm trying. I turn out to be somebody who is very susceptible to taking on whatever project anybody tells me that they want me to work on. And so, I need to really take the time to finish. But I love writing. I'm lucky in that I love writing. So, I'm excited about it.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:47:39] That is good. Yeah, that task would be way too daunting to me. But throughout the course of writing it, has it been an opening to talk to new people, let's say, not from your past experience? Who have you been able to speak with for the book that you wouldn't have otherwise?

Kate Gordon [00:47:56] Yeah, to some extent. One of the great things about my career is I've had such a great and varied career. And it's been so focused externally that I have a massive number of contacts at this point. It has allowed me to go back and revisit some things or see how some things have played out. I mean, if you're in the policy world... A lot of people think policy is just passing the bill, but implementation is like a multi-year project, and it's always so interesting to see how things are actually playing out.

Kate Gordon [00:48:28] Right now, I'm really having that experience because I'm consulting in California with a couple of organizations that are actually working on community benefits plans from the community or labor perspective, and also a couple of companies that are going through that. So, it's sort of interesting really seeing how this stuff plays out. And being humble about it. Some of these things don't work the way we thought they would, and the economy's constantly changing.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:48:53] One hundred percent. And do you have any other upcoming announcements or milestones that you want to share?

Kate Gordon [00:49:01] Not yet. I'm thinking about my next thing, but I don't have anything I could share at this point. But I'm very happy right now just getting to be... I'm on a few corporate advisory boards. I'm getting to do some great consulting, and just trying to get that book finished, and then, stay tuned.

Maddie Hibbs-Magruder [00:49:20] Exciting stuff. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today, Kate. This has been a terrific conversation.

Kate Gordon [00:49:27] Excellent. Thanks so much, Maddie. I appreciate it.

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