To commemorate Women’s History Month, we’re interviewing women at the Center for Progressive Reform about how they’re building a more just America, whether by pursuing a just transition to clean energy, protections for food workers, or legal support for American Indians. This week, we spoke with Hannah Wiseman, a professor at Penn State University who teaches and writes about energy and environmental law and land use regulation.
CPR: What motivated you to become an expert in energy law and a voice for a just energy transition in the United States? Is there historical context to this or a moment in history that stood out to you as motivation or inspiration?
HW: When I was working in Texas in 2008, two types of energy development were booming: hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for natural gas (“gas”) and wind energy. It became clear that we were at a major transition point. We could choose continued reliance on fossil fuels or we could substantially ramp up renewable energy. It turns out that in the United States, we chose both. We became the world’s largest oil and gas producer due to fracking, and we also greatly expanded renewables, but not by enough.
One benefit of the natural gas boom is that it has weaned us off of coal, and gas provides a backup to intermittent renewables. But we’re again at a turning point — and a critical one. With battery storage now more feasible and affordable, it’s time to substantially wean ourselves off of gas and make renewables the primary source of U.S. power. We’ve long called natural gas a “bridge” fuel to more sustainable forms of power, and it’s time to be moving toward the other side of the bridge.
CPR: What do you see as the highest priority in this field and what are the barriers to change?
HW: The highest priority in this field, as this country undergoes a rapid and major transition toward lower-carbon energy forms, is to engage with the communities with the highest energy burdens — communities in which energy makes up a large percentage of people’s budget.
In these communities, people often have to choose between paying the electricity or fuel bill and buying medicine or food for their children. We need the energy opportunities being created now — weatherization and other energy efficiency projects, rooftop solar, and so on — to flow to these communities. We need to engage these communities to better understand how cleaner energy can help them, and we need to expand clean energy projects in these communities first.
CPR: How does/might your work affect women in particular? Are there inequities you’ve witnessed that you’re working to change?
HW: Many single mothers face the highest energy burdens and have to make unthinkable and unacceptable choices among heat, electricity, food, and medicine for their children.
With respect to the field of energy in general, there are a huge number of women working in the energy space now. I hear from my senior colleagues that they used to be outnumbered by men; now it’s common to have energy events where women are in the majority. I am the beneficiary of the women who paved the way ahead of me.
CPR: If you could have Congress or President Biden’s ear for an afternoon, what would you recommend?
HW: I would recommend pushing even harder to expand low-carbon energy, but focusing even more heavily on small-scale measures that can directly benefit low-income residents. These measures include, for example, weatherization of apartment buildings and the construction of rooftop solar panels on these buildings.
CPR: Who inspires you?
HW: Alexandra Klass [a CPR Member Scholar] and Hari Osofsky [Dean of Penn State Law and the Penn State School of International Affairs], who have long served as mentors to me and, more recently, co-authors; Shalanda Baker [CPR Member Scholar on leave to serve in the Biden administration]; Greta Thunberg [youth climate activist]; Audrey Zibelman [former chair of the New York Public Service Commission and current CEO of the primary grid operator in Australia].
CPR: Who in particular would benefit from the policy reform you seek?
HW: If federal, state, and local green energy efforts focused even more heavily on local low-carbon projects, including community solar and wind, subsidized rooftop and parking lot solar, and energy efficiency measures, these could directly lower working single mothers’ energy bills. But these programs must be targeted properly. Historically, energy efficiency and rooftop solar have tended to focus on homes. But many people with high energy burdens live in apartments, not single family homes.