Fresh from a two-year stint as the governor’s chief energy adviser, former state Sen. Ellen Anderson is settling into a new job as head of the Energy Transition Lab at the University of Minnesota.
The new program, housed in the U of M Law School, is being billed as a “go-to” resource for energy and environment experts and policymakers. There they can work with faculty, students and staff to find ways to boost energy efficiency and move toward cleaner renewable fuels. The lab also will work to advance “energy and environmental justice.”
Anderson served 18 years in the state Senate and one year as Public Utilities Commission chair before advising Gov. Mark Dayton. She’s been executive director at the new lab for just the past month.
She says the lab likely will generate proposed local ordinances and statewide legislation. It will issue white papers, position papers and other analyses for consumption by the public, private and nonprofit sectors. “It is not just ivory tower work,” Anderson says. “It is work that is practical, real and impactful.”
She is not on the university faculty, but Anderson expects to supervise some graduate-level research projects, and even produce some research herself.
“I intend to write,” she says. “I’m not talking about books like professors do, or law review articles per se. I am talking more about being a think-tank communicator.”
Early on in the job, Anderson has been busy leveraging her vast array of connections in the energy industry, state government and academia to hold conversations about the most pressing energy-related issues, including renewable energy and climate change.
“I’ll be trying to identify where there are really important things happening where they could use a little bit of assistance on legal or policy analysis,” she says. “I have many more people to talk to.”
The Energy Transition Lab receives funding from the university’s Office of the Vice President for Research and operates in partnership with the Institute on the Environment. Because of its focus on law and policy change, it is housed at the university’s law school.
The lab’s faculty director, law professor Hari Osofsky, says she has known Anderson four years and has invited her to speak in her classes a number of times. Osofsky says that when she was asked to develop and staff the lab, Anderson’s name sprang to mind.
“I’ve always had tremendous respect for the important work that she has done in developing public policy in Minnesota around energy,” Osofsky says. “I was delighted when she had an interest.”
During her time in the Legislature, Anderson was known as an expert in renewable energy. She authored seven major successful bills on the topic, all of which were signed into law by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Kate Knuth, director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the Institute on the Environment, is a former district 50B DFL state representative and a member of the state’s Environmental Quality Board. In the Legislature, she teamed with Anderson to carry several energy-related bills, including one that would have required the MPCA to draft rules enabling the state’s participation in a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions.
The two also taught a college course together on carbon- and renewable-energy policy, Knuth says. “Ellen knows how to think creatively and deeply about what we need to do, who we need to involve, and how we need to get there,” Knuth says. “I think that is a formidable combination of talents and experiences.”
Anderson says the job puts her at center stage of such issues that have become the core issues of her professional life.
Minnesota does not produce any fossil fuels, so it has to import all that it uses, she says. That puts pressure on the state to develop a smarter future energy system that is renewable and less dependent on huge, centralized production facilities.
“Here in Minnesota we have this enormous opportunity to show the world how to transform your energy system to the 21st century,” Anderson says. “We are poised in a number of ways to do that. And the university needs to be a key player in that.”
Making a statement
Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, says she was Anderson’s Senate mentor when Anderson was first elected in 1992, at age 32. That role lasted two years, she says — about the length of time it took Anderson to master the job.
They were and remain close friends. Pappas says that since Anderson left the Senate to take her short-lived job as Public Utilities Commission chair in 2011, Pappas has found it hard to maintain her regimen of strolling through the tunnels and across the grounds of the Capitol complex — once daily ritual for herself and Anderson.
More than that, Pappas says, Anderson’s absence from the Legislature has placed a greater burden on Pappas to champion issues that she says Anderson owned as a senator — workers’ rights, preventing violence against women and gender-pay equity among them.
“I mean, the big [Women’s Economic Security Act] package, that might have been something that Ellen might have done,” Pappas says. “Because she chaired the Jobs Committee and had been involved in those issues over the years.”
Pappas also misses Anderson’s penchant for challenging authority, even inside her caucus. That goes right back to the beginning of her Senate years. In a much-publicized incident that in 1993, Anderson became the first woman ever to wear pants instead of a skirt on the Senate floor during session. That was a Friday. On the following Monday, Pappas followed suit (pun fully intended).
“We just said, ‘Men, you set your own rules for attire,’” Pappas says. “‘But you’re not going to set the rules for the women.’”
As an aside: It turns out that history-making demonstration was sort of accidental. Anderson says she was aware of and fully intended to break the pants-suit barrier, just not on the day it actually happened. She forgot there was a floor session that day, she says. “But I was very well dressed, wearing heels and a suit,” she says. “But that’s how I dressed normally.”
During her final years in the Senate, Anderson began focusing on energy and environmental issues, and the expertise she developed in those areas prompted Dayton to appoint her to the PUC. She gave up her Senate seat to accept the job. However, it ended ignominiously barely a year later when the Republican majority refused to confirm her nomination.
Anderson’s voice still catches with emotion when she talks about what she regards as a personal betrayal by Senate Republicans she considered friends, and with whom she had authored bills. Many voted for the same energy and environmental proposals they cited in branding her an “extremist,” she says.
“That was the part that was hard for me,” she says. “Well, that and the fact that I loved the work at the PUC and I would have liked to have stayed there for six years, as I should have. I should have been the chair until 2017, and that would have been great.”
A furious Dayton rode to Anderson’s rescue, appointing her his top energy and environment adviser. By “cruelly” maligning Anderson and refusing to confirm her PUC appointment, the governor wrote in a caustic written statement, Republicans proved “they are unfit to govern this state.”
Pappas confirms that the PUC episode remains a difficult subject for Anderson. “It is a sore point when you bring it up,” Pappas says. However, she says, there is an intensely bright side to those events.
“Had that not happened to her,” she says, “Ellen would not have had that great year of experience as Governor Dayton’s adviser. And so she would not now have this great job at the University where she can kind of write the script and have much more influence than she could before.”
At center stage
During her time as a Dayton adviser, Anderson worked closely with the Environmental Quality Board, the 14-member panel that writes rules for conducting environmental reviews. She also offered advice on invasive species and other issues that cut across the various state agencies.
One of her main tasks in those days was overseeing implementation of Executive Order 11-32, which Dayton issued to revitalize the EQB and improve the environmental review process. That same executive order ordered up an annual environmental and energy report card to track the progress of conservation efforts. And it revived the long-dormant Minnesota Environmental Congress.
She also worked on the EQB’s climate change initiative to evaluate greenhouse-gas reduction methods while simultaneously sparking the state’s economy. The EQB will issue its report from that effort some time this month, Anderson says.
However, by the spring of 2014, she says, it became clear that the projects she was working on as Dayton’s adviser were winding down and it was time to move on. When the Energy Transition Lab opportunity came along, she says, she snatched it.
“This seemed like a perfect fit,” she says. “It is sort of a capstone position for me.”
The energy industry is under stress, Anderson says. Aging fossil-fuel-fired plants require massive new investment even as consumers are cutting back on consumption. Meanwhile, the power grid is aging and becoming rapidly outmoded. A transition is desperately needed, she says.
“Utilities need to adapt to this transforming energy system or they’re going to become obsolete,” Anderson says. “There is a lot of work going on in Minnesota to look at a new utility business model, to figure out how utilities can still make money selling less energy.”
The state — indeed all of society — face few more pressing issues, Anderson says. And in her new job she feels she is standing at center stage. “This is my passion,” she says. “This is what I want to do.”
The Anderson File
Name: Ellen Anderson
Job: Executive director, Energy Transition Lab, University of Minnesota
Grew up in: Bergen County, New Jersey
Lives in: St. Paul
Education: Ridgewood (N.J.) High School; B.A., history, Carleton College; J.D., University of Minnesota.
Family: Married since 1995 to former state Rep. Andy Dawkins; two sons, both born while she served in the Senate.
Hobbies/interests: Anderson: “I’m a big gardener. I’m a big reader. I love to travel, but I don’t have enough time. One of my goals is to do more world traveling. I love to hike, bike, kayak, go out on a river. That’s the best.”
Gone green? Not totally: Dawkins is running against DFL incumbent Lori Swanson for attorney general — as a Green Party candidate. Though she certainly has gone green environmentally, Anderson has not jumped ship to the third party with her husband. “I am a Democrat,” she says firmly.