Green jobs could light the way in a post-pandemic economy

Before the COVID-19 crisis, clean energy jobs were growing one and a half times faster than overall employment in Wisconsin.
Anne Dougherty and Sara Conzemius
Courtesy of ILLUME
Anne Dougherty and Sara Conzemius

Before the COVID-19 crisis, clean energy jobs were growing one and a half times faster than overall employment in Wisconsin. The state had more than 76,000 of America’s 3.4 million such jobs, until more than 11,000 clean energy workers filed for unemployment this year. That workforce could help restart the economy, according to Sara Conzemius, co-founder of the clean energy consulting firm ILLUME Advising LLC, a 2020 Dane County Small Business Award winner.

“Wisconsin must focus on clean energy jobs to meet our state’s climate goals and expand employment opportunities,” Conzemius wrote in a recent op-ed supporting a proposed national clean energy jobs act. The idea that a cleaner, safer, more resilient energy infrastructure is good for business and communities is one she’s championed for decades — most recently with ILLUME, which she founded with Anne Dougherty.

Headquartered in Madison with satellite offices in Arizona and Oregon, ILLUME has 34 employees who serve more than 50 public- and investor-owned utilities in the U.S. with annual revenues of $6.5 million. ILLUME uses empathy-focused research and data analytics to help utilities convince customers to adopt more environmentally friendly behaviors. Conzemius and Dougherty created a company focused on career and family balance, as well as economic and social equity — values that align with sustainability, and came in handy while a pandemic emptied their research park office.

“We were lucky,” Conzemius says. “From the very first day, we were setting up a company that required us to function virtually. We don’t ever want an employee to have to say, ‘My company made me choose between this and that.’  ”

Similarly, she argues, “There is no tradeoff between a prosperous economy and addressing climate. There’s always this argument that if we [impose] environmental regulations for climate, it’s going to destroy the economy. But there are millions of jobs to be created in the clean energy economy.”

A Verona native, Conzemius started her career in 2001 at the nonprofit Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corp., or WECC, responsible for administering the state’s Focus on Energy program. Over 10 years, Conzemius worked her way up through design, planning, regulatory support, congressional testimony and program oversight, eventually running all Focus on Energy programs.

Back then, she was often the only woman in the room, and the youngest. “It was me and all the guys who got into it in the ’60s and ’70s who were saving the planet under Jimmy Carter,” she says. She left WECC for a research position at a private company where she felt overworked and disillusioned. But that’s where she met Dougherty, just as the industry began to change. Attendance at national conferences grew and her colleagues started skewing younger and more female. Federal and global efforts to combat climate change gained traction and environmental initiatives became mainstream.

The field is becoming more gender balanced, but only a minority of energy companies are female-led. (By contrast, 85{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of ILLUME employees are women). It’s crucial, however, that energy priorities consider those hit hardest by the pandemic — people with pre-existing conditions and “Black and brown people and poorer communities that tend to be near where power is generated,” Conzemius says. She adds that the nationwide demand for racial justice leaves her hopeful that environmental justice will prevail.
“We will see actual investment and effort made into really addressing the disproportionate effects of our energy production on disadvantaged communities,” she says.

Dane County’s progressive Office of Energy and Climate Change and its Climate Action Plan resulted from the work of nine subcommittees, one of which Conzemius chaired. Also promising is the state Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy that Gov. Tony Evers created in 2019. Since 2016, however, many federal environmental regulations have been rolled back. But Conzemius points out that climate change efforts are bigger than any one administration. Couple the mandate to restart the economy with a growing awareness of our interconnectedness, and Americans have good reason to invest in clean energy.

Maggie Ginsberg is a monthly columnist and senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.

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