Efficiency pioneer steps down

Margie Harris looks back on 15 years of energy efficiency.

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The name Margie Harris is virtually synonymous with Energy Trust of Oregon. The state-regulated nonproft, which helps homeowners, businesses and educational institutions cut back on energy use through programs such as the installation of LED lights and renewable energy retrofits, launched its services in 2002, the year after Harris was hired as its first executive director. 

In August, Harris, 65, will step down to make room for new leadership: Michael Colgrove, a director with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. In these edited excerpts, Harris talks about diversifying the energy sector, Oregon’s occasionally mystifying attitude toward sustainability initiatives — and her pending second career as a documentary film interviewer.

OB: What Energy Trust initiatives are you most proud of?

MH: I would start internally by saying I’m most proud of the people here: their talent, commitment and dedication to their work. The culture we have is one of being nimble and flexible and anticipating the future. A lot of the people I’ve had the pleasure of hiring are still here. We have fun and work hard.

The other thing is it’s just a pleasure to have chocked up so many tangible accomplishments. Any organization that can deliver over a billion dollars on customer utility bills should be proud. Customers that had been spending on energy costs can redirect savings into the economy, schools, pay health care and rent — all the ways in which our economy gets fueled and needs get met.

OB: Oregon is awash in energy efficiency consultants, and green building is now the norm, not the exception. How will Energy Trust stay relevant as efficiency goes mainstream?

MH: I see us [Oregon] on the cusp of brand new opportunities. Senate Bill 1547 opens the door wider: It starts with energy efficiency, has a loading order that goes to load response and includes Renewable Portfolio Standards and renewable energy acquisition. It goes deeper into whether or not we can design programs for lower-income solar and community scale solar.

Another piece is around electric vehicles and charging stations. Oregon boasts a high percentage of vehicles. How can we parlay that into more education and understanding and more opportunity to manage the grid differently? Those are all new opportunities. 

OB: So Oregon still needs Energy Trust? 

MH: If we were not needed, I would declare victory and everyone would go home. There is a lot of people in businesses who, when wanting to do the right thing, when motivated of their own accord to change their habits, still need technical assistance. They need to understand the costs, the rate of return, our incentive structure. Having someone sit across from them with that approach is a lot of what we do. I don’t think people will take these actions of their own accord.

Our budget was $50 million at the time I came in in 2001 and 2002. Now it’s $189 million. We began by collecting public purpose charges from electrical customers. The evolution of maturity came in 2003 with the addition of NW Natural. We grew again in 2006 when Cascade Natural Gas was decoupled and again in 2008 when legislation expanded our service to Washington state. [Decoupling is a mechanism designed to sever the link between a utility’s revenues and a costomer’s energy usage.]

Most recently a decoupling for Avista in Oregon means their customers in the southern and eastern part of the state will be served in 2017. All of those reasons contributed to the growth in opportunity and corresponding growth in our resources. 

OB: What are you least proud of? What has yet to be accomplished?

MH:  I brought an expert into the organization to do diversity training, and we are poised and ready to make our own staff and contractors aware of what we can and should be doing to serve everyone who is eligible for our services. Who has yet to participate? Who might be elderly, might be in a rural part of our state, might come from a different background? What can we do to reach and serve different population groups?

OB: Actually, the energy sector has attracted an unusual number of women leaders.

MH: Judy Johansen was the head of Pacific Power when I first started. PGE had Peggy Fowler. Susan Anderson is a woman I helped hire at the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability; she’s still there. Rachel Shimshak [executive director of Renewable Northwest] is a very dear friend. We have had woman directing the Oregon Department of Energy. I’m proud that we have women leaders here, and I’m proud I may have influenced and supported their growth.

OB: Is Governor Brown a leader in energy efficiency and renewables?

MH: I think Kate Brown has related values that support sustainability. She cares deeply about carbon reduction. I’ll leave it there. [Energy Trust of Oregon is expressly prohibited from endorsing candidates for office.]

OB: Did you vote for Hilary Clinton?

MH: I don’t think that’s a relevant question.inner

OB: Outsiders continue to visit Oregon to study our sustainability initiatives, in energy, transport and green building.  Internally, however, there is a growing sense that we are lagging and resting on accomplishments put in place ten, 20, even 30 years ago — accomplishments like the creation of Energy Trust in 1999.

MH: The fact that this organization is envied not just nationally but internationally for its accomplishments and sometimes isn’t as appreciated here in Oregon is a bit mystifying. We were the first to be specifically created for the purpose and the model is very rare. Efficiency Maine, Efficiency Nova Scotia, came into being in part based on our model.

When people come from China, India, South America, Russia and see what we are able to do they are amazed. They say: ‘I wish we had this type of organization and opportunity where I come from.’ The fact that that message doesn’t always get shared is a missed opportunity.

OB: Are we resting on our laurels? Are we falling behind?

MH:  I’ve been a part of a lot of the sustainability transformation: I worked in transportation at TriMet, in open spaces when I worked in Portland Parks.  That said, there is always more to be done. We have terrific pressures. Ironically, some of that is due to reputation and mystique that Portland has. We keep attracting the young creative class, and that puts pressure on infrastructure and to become sustainable. That creates more opportunity but also places where we have to invest.

OB: You are approaching another personal milestone.

MH: I’m going to marry my long-term partner on July 30, a mere four and half weeks away. We’ve been together 15 years. She was with me when I got the call that I got this job. She’s never known me absent this job, so it’s going to be a big surprise for her and for me, just to have the gift of time. She’s supported me so dearly. This is not a 9 to 5 job.

OB: So you will be spending more time with family

MH: I was previously married for 17 years, and I have wonderful 30-year old twin daughters who do fabulous work* and are the pride of my life. One got married last year; one is happily living with her man. The fact that they are in Portland is fabulous. My mother is 90, and she is living in her home independently, still vital and thriving. She could use a little more help and I hope to be able to assist her.

OB: Did you time the wedding to coincide with your retirement?

MH: I thought frankly we’d still be in throes of hiring. But the board elected to start early. The fact that we got a good candidate selected and hired by July is a little earlier than I had planned; it’s been a great distraction. Michael is coming on August 15. He and I will overlap for a few weeks.

We have a transition plan, and I will remain available to him on an as needed basis. I want to facilitate some introductions to key people. We’re going to do a road tour to key people board members, key contractors that we work with.

OB: What else is on your post-Energy Trust agenda? 

MH: I have a lot of energy and a lot of interests. I want to become an interviewer for documentary film making. I’m taking a class at the Northwest Film Studies Center.  I have a pretty good rapport with people.

OB: What kind of films?

MH: It’s the human interest element of the story that appeals to me. Brian Lindstrom made the film about James Chasse. I found that very moving, very informative.  It’s that kind of juicy subject matter that has to be shared.

OB: Other plans?

MH: Baking Ken Forkish’s bread. Taking out my kayak. Not being indoors, not being in a meeting. Especially in a meeting.

* Harris’ daughter Rebecca Shapiro is an LMT who works for Northwest Foot & Ankle, a Portland clinic. During our conversation, Harris took a moment to plug Shapiro’s boss, Dr. Ray McClanahan, aka “Radical Ray,” for his invention of “correct toes,” silicone toe spacers that emulate the natural footprint.

“My footwear has changed in the last four years since she started working there,” Harris said. “No arches, no heels. I never put myself in pumps, but for my wedding thought it would be nicer with my dress. So I tried on a heel and I couldn’t walk.”