Photo: Catherine Traywick/Bloomberg

AWEA’s Tom Kiernan: What rowing taught him about leadership

July 25, 2016 Catherine Traywick

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Every morning, Tom Kiernan rises at 4:45 a.m., leaves his Arlington home by 5 and is on the Potomac River by 5:30. For the next hour and a half, the president of the American Wind Energy Association is rowing, along with a couple dozen other members of the Potomac Boat Club.

“When you’re in the boat, you’ve got to be balanced, in sync with others, and that’s what gets speed,” he says. The same goes for running an association: “The team work, the discipline that’s involved. We need to be working in sync with Republicans, Democrats, with utilities, with corporate America.”

The wind industry has changed a lot since Kiernan took the reins of AWEA in 2013: Costs have declined, political support has increased and, most recently, Congress passed a five-year extension and phase-out of the Production Tax Credit, giving producers policy clarity through 2021. Yet his job hasn’t gotten any easier, a fact highlighted on the presidential campaign trail, when Republican candidate Donald Trump said “wind is killing all of the eagles.”

Kiernan sat down with Bloomberg Government recently to chat about that comment, the other policy issues he’s watching, and how he avoided the crocodiles while kayaking Kenya’s Tana River 30 years ago.

How about that time Donald Trump said turbines kill eagles?
Mr. Trump also said that he supports wind and solar and other renewables. We appreciate his support. Wind energy currently kills less than .01% of all human caused bird death. And we’re working to drive that even to a smaller number. So, first, I’d like to put into perspective: We are a very, very small source of bird take in this country and the industry is doing a lot to take that even further.

The fact that we do take eagles is correct, but I believe the numbers he used were out of date. When you look at the bigger picture, our impact on wildlife is dramatically less than other sources of energy generation. We’re much better for wildlife and for human health.

How challenging is it to counter narratives like that?
It’s important for us to educate members of Congress and, frankly, political leaders throughout the country, in state capitals, where a lot of important energy policy is set, about the current benefits wind energy is providing to the grid and to consumers.

We have a great story to share with folks. We’re the number one wind-energy producer in the world. We have 88,000 employees that grew by 20 percent last year. The fastest growing profession in the United States? wind turbine technician. You think it’s healthcare, nurses or software developers that would be the fastest growing profession. No, it’s wind-turbine technician — that’s from the Department of Labor.

How do you respond when people say wind is intermittent?
I would refer them back to the chief operating officer of PJM, the largest grid operator in the U.S., who at a conference referred to wind as baseload. It may not be blowing in one part of a state, but it’s blowing like crazy in another part and they just balance it all together. They’re able to manage it as baseload.

We are reliable. It’s happening. People that say it’s intermittent or what-have-you aren’t aware of how it’s working on the grid now. They may be using data or perspectives from the 20th century.

What do you worry about, policy-wise?
Challenges still remain for the longer term. We’re pleased with the five-year extension and phase-out. It does give us what we were looking for. I’ll also say, we’re very pleased with the bipartisan support. Democrats, Republicans, both sides of the aisle rallied together around that. I think, long-term, we very much need a level playing field. Fossil fuel continues to receive significant other tax support.

Transmission: It’s important that we continue to enhance the grid and transmission of clean energy throughout the country. There are a number of projects that are being planned. We have been working very closely with state and federal Fish and Wildlife Services to continue to streamline and make more efficient the permitting and siting processes. That’s important to us to make sure that wind farms are expeditiously sited, and in ways that are good and appropriate for wildlife.

Are you concerned about Clean Power Plan litigation?
At the end the day, we do think the court stay will be lifted and the Clean Power Plan will move forward. The Clean Power Plan, as we understand it, will get us the vast majority but not all of the way to the commitments the United States has made in Paris. So, we look forward to providing to states an affordable, reliable solution for carbon reductions for them to comply.

When the Clean Power Plan wins on the merits, we look forward to being the significant part of the solution for states.

What do you do in your free time?
I’m up quite early every morning, on the river rowing at 5:30 with a crew team at Potomac Boat Club. It’s right down under Key Bridge. About 30 or so guys. We compete on the weekends throughout the U.S., so that’s an important part of my life. There are a lot of good life lessons from rowing — both the team work with everyone in the boat, the discipline, the physical and emotional centeredness. When you’re in the boat, you’ve got to be balanced, in sync with others, and that’s what gets speed.

Is height an advantage?
Yes. I’m 6’5″. Interestingly, your inseam is really important because your strength mostly comes from your legs. So having long legs — that’s where you get most of your power. Now, upper body and arms matter too but, yes, height and inseam are helpful.

Rowing is a wonderful combination of skill and strength and stamina. You can’t just pull like crazy on the oar. If you’re not using good technique, and not in sync with the other rowers, the boat’s not going to go. And if you’ve got good technique and are in sync but aren’t fit — that’s not going to work either.

How long have you been rowing?
It’s been seven or so years — though I raced kayaks. Growing up in Arlington, I did a lot of kayaking on the Potomac, raced in college. I did row freshman year in college and knew I liked it, but I was there to kayak. Ended up coming out of college racing kayaks and being a river guide. I did that for a couple years out West.

I always said that when I retire, I’ll go back to being a river guide. We’ll see if that happens.

What was that like, being a river guide?
You’re in the outdoors, sharing the river safely with people. Once, with a buddy, I did a trip over in Africa. We made the first descent of the Tana River, which is Kenya’s largest river. That was a heck of an experience. It’s about 110 miles and we ended up blasting it in three days.

We were the first people to successfully kayak that river. People had tried before and been killed, either by the white water or by crocodiles.

Did you have any harrowing encounters?
It was on the ragged edge. We had crocodiles attacking us in our kayaks. One strategy they use to take their game is they’ll whip their tails around, and at one point I had a crocodile whip his tail around and knock my kayak, but it didn’t flip me over. Another time, my buddy and I were approaching a rapid and a crocodile appeared between us and started coming up to chomp on the back of my kayak. There were hippos in one place and a hippo roared up to come after us.

Exactly why did you want to do this?
Let’s remember I was 22 or 23 years old. It was a phase of my life when I was pretty competent on a river and we were looking at establishing a commercial operation on the Tana. The vision was to set up a river guide company over in Kenya — but the wildlife was a little too intense for bringing people down.

It was very soon after coming back that I decided, you know, getting married, settling down a little, sounds A-OK. So I proposed to my wife, Kathy, shortly after the trip. We’ve now been married just shy of 34 years.

You were also a George H.W. Bush appointee?
George Herbert Walker Bush campaigned on reauthorizing the Clean Air Act and I had the extraordinary fortune to join the administration to work in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

I was coming out of getting my MBA and reached out to Bill Reilly, who was the incoming administrator. He said “I don’t have anything but you need to talk to Bill Rosenberg,” who was the assistant administrator for Office of Air and Radiation. So I interviewed with Bill and about halfway through the interview he’s saying “OK, here’s what you’re going to do.” And I’m going, “I think that was a job offer — I’m not sure.”

So I played a central role in helping to move the regulations to implement the Clean Air Act. That was an extraordinary learning experience of how to work with diverse stakeholders to efficiently move something forward.

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Mark Drajem