Solar Energy Policy Pioneer Tom Starrs

2018 Vito Stagliano Excellence in Electricity Policy Award

The Northwest & Intermountain Power Producers Coalition (NIPPC) has selected solar energy pioneer and SunPower executive Thomas Starrs as the 2018 recipient of the Vito Stagliano Excellence in Electricity Policy Award.

“Tom Starrs is a bona fide solar pioneer,” said NIPPC Executive Director Robert Kahn commenting on the selection. “He has pushed policy as effectively as any one, most notably as a ‘godfather’ of net metering.”

Starrs was born and raised as the diplomatic equivalent of an “Army brat.” His parents were a diplomatic team for the U.S. State Department taking their young family to postings on three continents.

Starrs’ education was nearly as eclectic as his early rotating residences. He secured a joint bachelors degree in Economics and Environmental Studies from UC Santa Barbara with highest honors. He went on to complete a current degree program at U.C. Berkeley, earning a J.D. from Boalt Hall (Berkeley Law) and a Masters from UC Berkeley’s famed Energy & Resources Group. Starrs later returned to U.C. Berkeley to earn a Ph.D. from the same program.

Starrs’ masters and doctoral theses are a window on his career: “Legislative Incentives and Energy Technologies:  Government’s Role in the Development of the California Wind Energy Industry” and “Regulating Innovation and Competition in Emerging Technology Markets:  The Effects of Utility Participation in the Market for Remote Photovoltaic Systems” respectively.

But public policy was never just an academic exercise for Starrs. His doctoral research put him on center stage for the opening act of today’s solar energy industry. In the early 1990’s photovoltaic panels were deployed in remote applications to avoid costly distribution line extensions or to power remote lighting, communications, cathodic protection, and other small-scale industrial applications. The technology as costly as it was couldn’t be considered mainstream for grid-connected applications. “Net metering” was mostly a concept until Starrs, complete with his legal and policy experience, got engaged.

While Minnesota and Massachusetts toyed with net metering, regulatory barriers stymied widespread adoption.  Only when Starrs helped draft the bill and lobby the legislature did the nation’s first truly workable net metering statute emerge in California, in 1995. Following that success, Starrs spent the next seven years crisscrossing the country as a solar Johnny Appleseed, working with local advocates and providing expert testimony before state legislatures and public utility commissions. Today, 46 states offer some form of net metering.

Net metering is not without its critics. As the earliest and most robust adopter of the policy, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), commissioned a study to explore its impacts. Among the results was a finding showing that utility customers with rooftop solar installations paid more for their power in 2011 than what it costs their host utility to serve them. While the production of dueling studies has continued, there can be little doubt net metering has proven as disruptive a policy innovation as photovoltaics themselves are as a technology.

Starrs began his career interning for Santa Barbara County’s Office of Legal Counsel and later at the Natural Resources Defense Council working at both to halt or minimize the impacts of Federal offshore oil and gas leases. Following law school between 1988 and 1991, he worked as an Associate Attorney in Perkins Coie’s Environment and Natural Resources Group, in the firm’s Washington DC and Seattle offices.

Starrs left legal practice to complete his doctorate and work in academia until 1996 when as a consultant; he promoted net metering and other renewable policy initiatives. In 2002, Starrs signed on as CEO at Schott Applied Power Corporation, which at the time was the largest solar energy project developer in the country with 50 employees and approximately $25 million in annual revenues.

Starrs’ career next brought him to the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), where he helped launch the retail marketing of renewable energy credits (RECs) conceived by his long-time friend and BEF colleague, Robert Harmon. Starrs ended his three-and-a-half year stint at BEF as its CEO to take a position starting up the solar energy business at PPM Energy (later Iberdrola Renewables, and now Avangrid Renewables). He joined SunPower over nine years ago to co-lead the startup of its utility-scale power plant business, and has served as its Vice President, Market Strategy and Policy for the last five years.

A former, long-time board member of the American Solar Energy Society and the Smart Electric Power Alliance, Starrs now chairs the board of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Other current roles include service on the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Electricity Innovation Lab advisory board, as well as board positions with the Wind Energy Foundation and Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CEERT).

The academic, reflective side of Starrs never really left. He is a prolific author and public speaker with over 50 papers and magazine articles published and 135 pubic presentations made before trade group conferences, legislative committees, NGO meetings and other settings.

Tom and his wife Erika reside in Portland, Oregon and have two children, the eldest of whom enters Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts this fall.

Past Awardees

2017: Eugene “Gene” Derfler

2016: JT Thompson

2015: Jan Hamrin

2014: Philip Moeller

2013: Marlene Lockard

2012: Dana Peck

2011: Ray Baum

2010: Virginia Coe

2009: Denise Hill

2008: Jeff Morris

2007: Roy Hemmingway

2006: Vito Stagliano

Who Was Vito Stagliano?

Vito Alexander Stagliano – Advocate for Change in Electricity Policy

Vito Stagliano’s career included consequential service at the Department of Energy, national advocacy as Calpine’s VP of transmission strategy, and an instrumental role in guiding NIPPC.

The first recipient of the award named in his honor, Stagliano epitomized the qualities of leadership in electric policy innovation: incisive intelligence, firm advocacy, coalition building, and persistence. Vito Stagliano, always the gentleman, left an indelible mark on all those who knew him.

When he passed away unexpectedly in January 2008, Vito Stagliano was serving as Director of Research for the Washington DC-based Commission on Energy Policy, where he originally joined staff in March 2006. Formerly a Federal executive, Stagliano served most of his public service career in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), initially as Special Assistant to the Secretary, subsequently as head of the Policy Integration Office, and finally as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Analysis, the career service’s highest rank. He assisted in the analyses and design of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. He oversaw the analyses conducted by the DOE national laboratories that led to the promulgation of the first Federal climate change policy. Stagliano oversaw the first drawdown of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve that coincided with the start of the first Gulf war and, in collaboration with Resources for the Future and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory; he directed the landmark U.S.-European Study of the Cost and Benefits of Fuel Cycles.

While Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy in the Administration of George H.W. Bush, Stagliano led the government-wide effort that resulted in the National Energy Strategy promulgated by the President in 1991, and legislated by Congress in 1992 as the Energy Policy Act. For his public service between 1989 and 1992, He was awarded a bronze and silver medal for exceptional service by Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins, and a meritorious service medal by President Bush.

Stagliano was a Visiting Scholar at Resources for the Future (RFF) from 1993 to 1996, where he co-authored “A Shock to the System: The Restructuring of America’s Electric Utility Industry,” and “Energy Security in the Twenty-first Century,” the latter in collaboration with the National Defense University. He is also the author of “A Policy of Discontent: The Making of a National Energy Strategy.”

Stagliano was appointed a vice president of Commonwealth Edison Co. of Chicago, in 1998, responsible for transmission policy and bulk power operations, where, in collaboration with several other Midwest electric utilities, he developed the so-called Binary Model of a for-profit transmission business operating within the framework of a non-profit regional transmission organization. While also at Commonwealth Edison, Stagliano managed the regulatory approval processes, at the FERC, the FTC and the SEC, for the merger with PECO Energy, which resulted in the present-day Exelon Corporation. The merger was approved unconditionally on the prescribed 120-day calendar.

Stagliano subsequently held the position of vice president for transmission strategy at the Calpine Corporation. At Calpine, Stagliano directed the company’s participation in emerging ISOs and RTOs, provided strategic advice on Federal and State regulatory proceedings, oversaw filings and interventions in support of competitive wholesale power procurement processes by native utilities, and testified before the FERC and State Commissions on regional power markets development. He was instrumental in the redesign of RTO-West, which, as the latter Grid West provided a platform for a substantial consensus on the Pacific Northwest’s transmission system problems and opportunities.

Stagliano also advocated more competitive and market-driven behavior on the part of the Federal Power Marketing Administrations (BPA and WAPA), whether or not they were members of ISOs/RTOs.

Stagliano was a member of the U.S. and International Associations for Energy Economics, the Gridwise Architecture Council, the Theodore Thomas Society of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Poetry Society. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, served on the staff of the Peace Corps in Ghana and Washington, DC, and on the staff of the Agency for International Development in Senegal and Bourkina Faso. He served for two years as Executive Director of the Palau, Micronesia, Community Action Agency in the former U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific.