Chris Duffrin: New leader at time of rapid industry growth and innovation
Earlier this year, CEE announced Chris Duffrin as our new president. Chris came to CEE after serving as the executive director for the Neighborhood Energy Connection for the past eight years. He has strong roots in consumer advocacy and community-based efficiency programs. Now that he’s had a few months to settle in to his new role here at CEE, it’s time to get to know him a little better and find out what the future has in store for CEE.
How did you become focused on energy as your career?
I sort of fell into energy. I began my career focused mostly on consumer protection. While this sometimes included energy issues, energy wasn’t initially the focus of my work. In 1998 Pam Marshall from the Energy CENTS Coalition recruited me to work for the organization and put together an affordability pilot for low-income customers. This launched me in to the energy world.
During my time at Energy CENTS I worked on a variety of policy issues, representing low-income customers at both the Minnesota Legislature and Public Utilities Commission, and I also developed an efficiency program that we ran in partnership with the Neighborhood Energy Connection (NEC). I was drawn to energy efficiency as a way to help customers lower their utility bills and better afford their utilities, so when the NEC hired for a new executive director 2008, I jumped at the opportunity.
You have a lot of experience in community advocacy and program innovation. How will these past experiences impact the work you will do at CEE?
I always approach energy issues from the consumer perspective and from a broader ratepayer perspective. As we move towards a low-carbon economy — which is the direction we need to go — and introduce more efficiency and renewables into the system, we also need to continue to be mindful of ratepayers, especially lower-income ratepayers. We want to introduce low-cost, low-carbon options that allow for continued growth. CEE has always been a strong voice in Minnesota for building and maintaining that kind of energy system, and that is something I have always appreciated about CEE. In many ways I feel like I am continuing that tradition in my new role here.
As for program innovation — this is such a rapidly changing time for our field. There has been so much growth over the past 10 years and it is only going to continue. Innovation is crucial to meet the aggressive carbon-reduction goals coming from cities and states around the country, and we as a society are going to have to dig deeper to achieve energy savings. Over the next decade our programs will look very different than they do now.
What important, new opportunities do you envision for CEE?
We are on the brink of significant changes to our programs. First, residential program goals are massive, and we need to find new ways to scale our programs and help people go deeper to achieve energy savings in their homes. We also need to continue to evolve with new technologies and find ways to interact with customers as they use these new technologies in their homes. Second, we have achieved a lot of savings in our commercial programs through lighting and we need to expand to help smaller commercial customers find additional areas for saving. This will become especially important as electric rates increase. And third, there is huge opportunity for savings in very large buildings — where there is an enormous amount of energy use — and we have only hit the tip of the iceberg in this area. Programs and services for large buildings will likely look very different in the next few years, and CEE has the experience and expertise to help shape those changes here in Minnesota.
Outside of our programs, CEE has had a dedication to research from the very beginning, and today we have a team that can evaluate new technologies to understand how they actually work, not just how they are supposed to work. As more new technologies enter the market, we need to learn more about how people interact with and operate the technologies to put ourselves in a strong position to offer expertise in that area. Lending is also changing. We need to continue to adapt to the current consumer culture, which is more technology driven, with people wanting faster solutions. People are also more wary of debt, as they should be. However, I think CEE can still offer some exciting new energy products with low fees and low interest rates, and help energy efficiency and renewables grow in a way that is in the public interest.
What do you see as our biggest energy challenge today?
Over the next few decades, over 4,000 megawatts of coal generation will be fully depreciated and ready for retirement. While we have experienced retirements of utility plants in the past, it has been nothing like the upcoming magnitude of potential retirements, and there will be tremendous opportunity for low-carbon options like efficiency and renewables. We need to rise to the challenge and get our programs and products up to speed so that we are ready for this opportunity. We want to help the whole industry grow in order to meet this demand.
CEE will also have to continue to differentiate itself and remind people of the importance of having a nonprofit in the energy industry. Many people think that the market is getting to a place where it should be able to regulate itself, but this is not what is actually happening across the board, and we run the risk of not producing real savings for customers and ratepayers. CEE and other nonprofit organizations are important to ensure that these voices are represented in these discussions. We have a history of community-based work that helps us to understand the needs of communities and provide solutions to help people use less energy and reduce their carbon footprint.
What are you most excited for in your new role?
This is an extremely important point in time for energy efficiency and clean energy. There is an increased awareness about the need to consider efficiency and renewables as we plan for economic growth. CEE is in a perfect position to tackle these issues here in Minnesota. We have been a leader in the energy world for over 35 years, and we are poised to help Minnesota decide where to go and what to do from here. And that is what I am most excited about — coming to work every day to think about how to tackle these problems.