In this episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Sheila Hollis, a longtime energy lawyer and the acting executive director of the United States Energy Association (USEA). Hollis walks through the principal responsibilities of the USEA, which partners with US federal agencies and governments around the world to expand energy access, reduce energy costs, and minimize the environmental risks of energy infrastructure in developing countries. Given that every country has unique circumstances and its own political history, Hollis contends that the best way to approach international development efforts is to come with an open mind and listen to local stakeholders about their most pressing needs.
Listen to the Podcast
- Energy never sleeps: “You can go to sleep tonight and wake up, and the world can be changed—whether it is Fukushima; whether it is the Suez Canal blocked, which is inhibiting oil and liquefied natural gas and all kinds of things from being shipped around the world; whether it’s an invasion or a war or a disagreement … [Energy] is like a breathing, living organism. It breathes with the world, and the world breathes with it.” (6:42)
- Building energy infrastructure can unite neighboring nations: “Each country is different. There are political divisions that may have existed between them, but there are ways to bring them together and help them continue to provide energy supply to their people and to overcome those historical or political divisions just to make the system work … Energy is a business that brings people together. It can drive them apart, but a lot of times it brings them together to make things work.” (14:39)
- Providing effective international support: “The underlying philosophy here is that you go in with your mind open and your heart open and not in any dictatorial, pushy kind of way. We want to help the country. We don’t want to annoy them. The plan here is that we would demonstrate that the United States is a good and decent country that wants to help them, and the worst way to do that is to go in issuing orders like you’ve suddenly taken over the place.” (20:55)
Top of the Stack
- The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations by Daniel Yergin
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. My guest today is Sheila Hollis, acting executive director of the US Energy Association (USEA). USEA is an industry association that represents 150 members across the US energy sector, from the largest Fortune 500 companies to small energy consulting firms. The organization supports policy and technical discussions with the US Department of Energy to expand the use of clean energy technology globally and works to expand energy access in developing countries with the US Agency for International Development. Sheila and I will be talking today about changes facing the energy industry in both mature and in developing markets. It's a big topic, but given USEA's breadth of coverage, one that Sheila is well-positioned to discuss. Stay with us.
Sheila, it's a pleasure to talk with you today. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Sheila Hollis: Thank you, Kristin. I'm very appreciative of being invited to speak on your podcast.
Kristin Hayes: Of course. So Sheila, you stepped into your role at USEA at—I think it's fair to call it a challenging time—when the organization's longtime head suddenly passed away and you took over the mantle from him. So can you just tell us a little bit more about how you got into the energy field, how your role with USEA has evolved over the years, and can you bring us up to where you are today?
Sheila Hollis: Certainly. Well Kristin, I've been in the energy business for over four decades now, beginning as a lawyer, actually coming to Washington after just having taken the bar exam out in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming and ending up in DC at the old Federal Power Commission and had a wonderful experience. I immediately jumped into a major case and never looked back and realized that this is where I was going to put up stakes and pursue a career in something that really, really was a wonderfully exciting and rewarding career.
I really began at the old Federal Power Commission and subsequently, after representation of the State of New York for about three years in the energy shortage period, I went back in to establish the director as the first Office of Enforcement of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which was itself brand new and a successor agency to the Federal Power Commission. This is in the late 1970s.
And then we built an office from zero to 65 employees and got the regulations in place. And after several years in that role, I went back into private practice. And since that time, I've worked very expansively in the energy field, both domestically and internationally, and I've represented clients all over the world in infrastructure development, hydronuclear transportation, oil gas reliability enforcement, and all over the world with a special emphasis in Africa, Europe, the United Kingdom, South America, and Mexico.
So I always loved energy, and all of my professional career has been in energy, and I got into USEA because of that. I had heard about it. I'd seen a couple of little advertisements or blurbs about it, and someone finally invited me to one of the meetings, which I just couldn't believe the amount of information in one place at one time. This is before the magic world of podcasts and other Zoom meetings and all the like. It was a tremendous opportunity for camaraderie, but it also was a tremendous opportunity for learning and being with like-minded people, those who loved energy in its various forms and who spent their lives devoted to it.
So, that's how I got into it and Barry Worthington, and his team were warm, welcoming, great people. I got to know Barry and the team that made up USEA and as a result, I became more active in it, went on the board, and was chair of the board until Barry's untimely demise. And I was honored to be asked by the board to step in the acting executive director role, although they were incredibly large shoes to fill. We had to continue to fulfill the mission of USEA, which was, as you know, a dual mission for us to convene, educate, bring like-minded people together, but also to work in 104 countries around the world over the years with US Agency for International Development, Department of State, and Department of Energy to aid those parts of the world and those peoples of the world that had either no energy or inadequate or unsafe energy, and to basically work with the US government to improve the life and experience of people throughout the world who needed it.
Kristin Hayes: I know that's sort of the focus of our conversation today, and I definitely want to talk to you more about that international experience, but I do have one more opening question first, and it's sort of based on something that you noted in a recent correspondence that's sort of one of your signature lines and the reference is that energy never sleeps. That stuck in my head and I wanted to ask you about it. And so I guess if you could just, kind of using that as a frame, maybe tell us how you think that reflects the expectations that are facing the energy industry right now. And I guess I wanted to ask, does the energy industry sleep even less now than it did in times past? Is our dependence on energy and the pace of energy, what's required of the energy industry in general, how do you see that playing out today?
Sheila Hollis: Well, I think we could see it playing out just with recent events, blackouts, freeze outs, confusion and chaos on grids in a number of settings; particularly hard hit recently is Texas, but also surrounding states. We've seen it in California. The impact that energy has and the dramatic impact that events going on in the environment have on the energy business. So you can go to sleep tonight and wake up and the world can be changed, whether it is Fukushima; whether it is the Suez Canal blocked, which is inhibiting oil and liquefied natural gas and all kinds of things from being shipped around the world; whether it's an invasion or a war or a disagreement. Energy can't sleep, because it is reflective. It's like a breathing, living organism. It breathes with the world, and the world breathes with it.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Well, I certainly think that all of us have experienced and seen made more visible the ways in which that's true, so thank you for reflecting a little bit on that with me. So, I'm very grateful today that you suggested that we might focus in on the international efforts that USEA undertakes. And of course we could cover a tremendous amount of territory related to the energy industry, but let's talk in some depth about expanding energy access in developing countries. It's a major component of USEA's portfolio. Let me start by asking, in your view, what are the most important ways that US-based companies can support that expanded energy access abroad.
Sheila Hollis: Well, when you realize that there are still at least a billion people on the planet with no energy, there's a lot of places to start. And there's many different technologies. There’s many different resources that can be brought to bear, and USEA reflects all those different opportunities and also trying to address existing risks, shortages, problems, the need for training, and the like. So with our staff, which are really the crown jewels of USEA, and our board's continuing support, what we try to do is to take the staff and those that we work with to bring their intellect and impact and dedication to the world with the US government and to build and strengthen energy systems globally, and to help the people in those countries to manage more efficiently, thoughtfully, and with more attention to the cost to the people in those countries, and the needs and the dynamic situation in these countries, and the changing needs that they may have.
So we try to bring wisdom, we try to bring training, we try to bring technology and to work closely with the people in the country so that we develop long-lasting relationships with them and partner with them to make their life and the life of their people better.
Kristin Hayes: Sheila, you've mentioned technology a couple of times, and clearly a huge part of the energy picture is how the technology picture is changing behind the scenes. And so I want to ask just a couple of questions about emerging technologies or changing technologies. So first of all, USEA has a wide-ranging membership and really has all sizes of organizations involved in the association. So you've got a great lens on how these emerging technologies are impacting the industry overall. Can you say just a little bit more about that?
Sheila Hollis: Sure. We've got a variety of them. We try to cover all of the various sources of energy and how they can be applied given the circumstances in the country and given the technology, which may work for them. There's many emerging technologies in addition to the traditional ones, hydronuclear, oil, gas, and like, so working in areas as broad as hydrogen, the utilization of hydrogen-based carbon capture and storage, and trying to be responsive to the environmental awakening and environmental needs of the world while still providing support and assistance vis-a-vis the energy supply itself.
So we're working with a lot of new technologies, cutting-edge developments occurring in labs and companies and universities that will ultimately be adopted by other entities. And we’re working to make these technologies cost-effective and reducing their carbon footprint as well. There's a lot of challenges, but there's a lot of huge opportunities and a lot of excitement in making this happen. And it's a bubbling stew of creativity and experimentation to address the CO₂ issues. And in addition to the CO₂ issues, just to make things cost-effective, more available, and more workable for the long haul with environmental sensitivity built in.
Kristin Hayes: So what does that parallel picture look like in developing countries then? Do you see developing economies already embracing some of those newer technologies, maybe like hydrogen or even additional renewables technologies, or would you say that they're largely focused on expanding energy access through, I guess what we would consider the more classic sources of oil, natural gas, and coal? What's the balance of emerging versus classic technologies there?
Sheila Hollis: Sometimes the country is driven by the resources they have on hand and understanding that the CO₂ issues are built-in throughout the world as issues that need to be dealt with. But sometimes they have at hand, for example, natural gas. It's there. They may have an inadequate pipeline system. There may be training issues and the like, but sometimes they have to play the hand they're dealt, and the hand they're dealt might be the utilization, at least for now until there's a solution which does not rely so heavily on CO₂, to go with that and do the best they can to diminish any waste excess or unnecessary exposure. But that's to make the energy that they have available safer, available to people, and to manage it better.
For example, in South America and in Eastern Europe, we worked very, very extensively. When the Berlin Wall fell, we really became extremely active once the wall fell in all those countries that were left, as a result of antiquated technology, extremely dirty technology, or just a broken system altogether that did not serve the people adequately or allow for development at all in any meaningful ways, to go in and really work hand-in-hand since the early 1990s, to improve their life. And that means whether it's the training of how to run a grid, training in how to protect your engineers that are out in the field, natural gas safety, electric safety, and those types of issues.
And it develops not just by USEA going into the country and teaching, but these countries bring their people over here to learn, and to absorb and to have an opportunity to see other agencies. We try to help in the construction of regulatory systems that are fair and open and allow the development of the people, but have a structure of regulatory and energy oversight, which is useful to them too. So we do a variety of things.
Each country is different. There are political divisions that may have existed between them, but there are ways to bring them together to help them work and continue to provide energy supply to their people and to overcome those historical or political divisions just to make the system work. So it's extremely interesting, and energy is a business that brings people together. It can drive them apart, but a lot of times it brings them together to make things work. And there's a certain practicality to it. Engineering doesn't lie. I mean, the facts are the facts, science is science, and the facts are the facts.
So it's great in that way to see people working together. We're not there to lay it on them and say, “this is the way it's going to be.” We work hand-in-hand, and it's a wonderful relationship that in many cases goes on for decades.
Kristin Hayes: Well, I guess I did want to ask, so Sheila, can you give us just a few more examples of what that technical assistance entails? Whether it's to utilities or other energy partners in developing countries, you mentioned developing regulatory frameworks for example, but also focusing on safety and reliability. So, can you just give us an example or two of how that looks in practice?
Sheila Hollis: Well, just a very recent one is an incident that originated we believe in southeastern Europe that could have caused major, major cascading blackouts throughout the European power network. We never really tracked the exact cause, and it's still being investigated, but the frequency of the northwest European grid dipped dramatically in 15 seconds. The regulating authority called the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E) temporarily separated the two grids and that was all in coordination with the transmission system operators in both regions. And it mitigated the potential for huge and devastating blackouts that would have damaged all the countries involved. So that is just one of the things that we had put in place to be able to work on this grid, to get on, even though there are political and cultural differences, all that.
Energy can be a force for working together, and that's what we're trying to instill and to work with the countries and work with groups of countries so that, even though they may have different political, religious, and cultural goals and views, when it comes to energy, they can work together and to help each other, at least with respect to that. And so that's one example.
Then we also did a tremendous amount of work in providing software and sophisticated modeling, planning capabilities, and so on. That's kind of what we try to do. And then we had another very good example of how our work in the field involves setting up a system for example to get a renewable energy auction set up. We did this in Colombia in February of 2019. They had begun in Colombia to have a renewable energy auction, but because there were antitrust requirements in Colombia that they wanted to use to ensure a sufficient competition, the result was they didn't get the renewable energy that we wanted.
So we worked with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in an energy utility partnership program that recommended that they revise the auction rules. This is not a physical thing; it's just a revising of the rules of the game, and as a result, over 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy was awarded and the AES Corporation, as a member of USEA, was actually awarded as a tenth of that—about 250 megawatts of wind capacity—and it mobilized an investment of about $230 million. Those are two examples from very recent history. It could either be working through a regulatory system to make it work better to achieve the objective that they sought, or it can be actually preventing a catastrophe from occurring, such as a blackout on a huge grid, which would have been extremely damaging in the winter to these countries.
We do small things and we do big things, and the big things have big impact for the good of these countries and for the world, and we work so closely with the US government to accomplish this. And it makes the world aware that the United States is a good country and we want to do the right thing. We want to help. And this is one way to express that element in the United States is that we want to do good for the world, and this is one way to do it.
Kristin Hayes: Well, and it strikes me that some of your key government partners are, of course the US Department of Energy, which makes perfect sense, but also you've referenced several cases where you've partnered with the US Agency for International Development. I guess I wanted to reflect on international development for just a second. My understanding is that there's been an increased emphasis in the world of international development practice around not simply parachuting in and telling aid recipients what to do—and you referenced this a little bit before—but really engaging with them in a two-way dialogue and taking advantage of their in-country expertise. They are in the best position to understand local circumstances and local challenges, but then pairing that with the expertise that comes from US-based companies.
So does that match your experience and what have you found to be the most effective ways that those US companies can both educate but also learn?
Sheila Hollis: Well, you don't go into a country to dictate. You go into a country to help. That's the underlying philosophy here is that you go in with your mind open and your heart open and not in any dictatorial, pushy kind of way. We want to help the country. We don't want to annoy them. The plan here is that we would demonstrate that the United States is a good and decent country that wants to help them. And the worst way to do that is to go in issuing orders like you've suddenly taken over the place. That is not what we do at all. And we have developed relationships with many of these countries over many years. The people come over, they come to the United States, they visit the United States, they visit utilities over here of a particular interest they may have.
We have had the blessing of having wonderful volunteers from our members who have gone over and either supported by their companies or on their own and worked with the people to address these issues. Friendships are formed over many, many years. It's not at all dictatorial or pushy.
An issue has been identified, usually by the country. It says, you know, "We have a problem with X. Would it be possible to get some help to do this?" We don't invent it out of thin air. There's an issue. And so it has a tremendous history and has had a profound impact. We've worked in 104 countries. Our staff speaks 14 languages. It's just a wonderful outreach, and the three directors who have traveled every corner of planet earth, some of them have been with the USEA for 20 years. Many of our employees cover a wide range of expertise. There's engineers, there's IT, there's geologists, there's a broad range of capabilities which we bring to bear, and also, there are in-country specialists. They understand the country, the culture, and the surrounding environments, but their primary focus is getting the energy systems to work better for the people.
Kristin Hayes: Well, I guess I say this as the child of two teachers, but if there's anything that I have experienced too, it's that people genuinely love sharing their expertise and people genuinely appreciate when that expertise is offered in admittedly, and importantly, sort of a humble way, but nonetheless, everybody appreciates having someone who can give them good advice, and so it makes a lot of sense that there would be this sort of mutually beneficial relationship where people who have that expertise would love to share it, and people who can benefit from it would really embrace it. So I certainly can see why it would be a long-lasting and very mutually beneficial model.
Sheila Hollis: I worked all over the world. I can tell you that some of my best friends are at least 8,000 miles away and we've stayed in touch over decades. And it's not necessarily related to energy. It's photos from the families, and it's just a wonderful, wonderful thing. This is a way for the United States, by using us as an implement, to express how the American people, how good they are and how they want to do the right thing.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Solving problems together is a very powerful connector I think, so that makes a lot of sense. Maybe just one final question for you then, and it is about this partnership with the federal government. We are recording here in March 2021, and so the Biden administration is still relatively new, and I guess I wondered how you see your partnership changing maybe over the next four years under this relatively new administration? Are there new initiatives that you're looking to embark on? How do you see this thinking around expanded energy access playing out with your current federal partners?
Sheila Hollis: Well, we've worked with many different administrations and it's been an honor and a pleasure to work with each of them. These projects are not 60-day or two-month projects. These projects go on for years, and we anticipate and expect that our relationship with this administration will be as great as our relationship with other administrations too. We have gone through 30-plus years. We've seen a lot of different administrations. And we know that the people at USAID, the State Department, and the Energy Department want to do the right thing, and we want to do the right thing with them. We take the lead from them. We're going to be working throughout the world on behalf of the United States and obviously we take direction from them. They know what they want to do, and we will help them implement it.
I expect that every administration has a different vision, but it doesn't work like the light switch. You can't turn on and off the projects that are underway, but there may be growth in different areas. It's a very exciting time. We're really looking forward to it with all of the new technologies that are being explored. Clearly, cybersecurity is a huge issue, trying to enhance cybersecurity in these countries. And these are the types of critical issues that transcend politics in many ways. And the new technologies are going to take off and take hold or the consideration of environmental and CO₂ issues are going to be enhanced: we're going to be working more in those areas for sure. We don't invent it. We reflect what the US government wants to do.
Kristin Hayes: Well, great. Yeah. It's certainly going to be something to watch and I am sure that other countries will continue to value the content that you bring and just the expertise you're willing to share. So it's great to learn a little bit more from you about how that all works in practice.
Sheila Hollis: Well, it's a pleasure to be here with you today.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. So Sheila, I think we've reached our time and I will close with our regular closing feature, Top of the Stack. So Sheila, what's on the top of your stack? Feel free to recommend something to our listeners that you think might be relevant either to this particular subject of conversation or just more generally of interest.
Sheila Hollis: Well, we actually have on our board, Daniel Yergin, and he's just come out with a really wonderful new book called The New Map. And he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Quest, which really presented a different picture of the way energy worked and the way it influenced the world. And so with all the things that have gone on since that wonderful book came out, The New Map has just come out, and so that's something that's on the top of my stack that I'm working on right now.
Kristin Hayes: Great. Great. Sounds good. Well, at least here in Washington, DC, we have a beautiful day, so hopefully you can get outside and enjoy the sunshine someplace and get a little bit more of that book under your belt.
Sheila Hollis: It's a delight to be with you. Thank you so much for including me and thank you for your fine work at RFF.
Kristin Hayes: Thank you so much. Take care.
Sheila Hollis: Bye-bye!
Kristin Hayes: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Learn how to support Resources for the Future at rff.org/support. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future.
RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington DC. Our mission is to improve environmental energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.