As many now know, I’m leaving Clean Fuels Ohio after twenty years. Megan Stein and Andrew Conley will serve as Interim Co-CEOs while the Board searches for and hires new leadership. With new funding expected to fuel additional growth in 2022, the organization is in great hands and stronger than ever.
On January 10, I begin a new career chapter with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as Clean Cities Project Leader. This position, based in NREL’s Washington, DC office, will enable me to leverage lessons learned to help strengthen the Clean Cities program and help coalitions around the country deliver the impact we need today.
First – A Brief History:
Clean Fuels Ohio began as an initiative housed within the City of Columbus Health Department in 1999. I was hired to launch it and a separate regional air quality initiative called Project Clear. Our goal was to achieve designation as a Clean Cities coalition by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Over two years, we worked to build a stakeholder committee, establish a membership dues program, hire student interns, and develop a “program plan” in close cooperation with stakeholders. By the fall of 2001, we had achieved our goal when Central Ohio Clean Fuels Coalition (COCFC) was approved for designation by the U.S. DOE.
At the same time, Columbus Health Department leadership concluded that COCFC and Clean Cities were poorly aligned with the Department’s core mission to deliver health services to the community. Stakeholders and I collaborated to spin off the initiative andcreated a new, independent charitable non-profit. The new Board hired me as the Executive Director.
Many thought we were crazy at the time. Gas and diesel prices were at historic lows. GM ended the production on the EV1 in 1999, then recalled leases and crushed most of the cars. Many natural gas utilities were selling or tearing out their CNG stations. Except for Honda, automakers discontinued production of natural gas vehicles. Medium to heavy-duty natural gas and propane vehicles were plagued by immature technologies that were expensive and/or unreliable. Biodiesel was in its infancy, expensive, and challenging to source. In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush announced his FreedomCAR and Fuel Initiative, featuring a focus on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. However, there were no prospects for anything market ready.
Dr. Giorgio Rizzoni, Director of the Ohio State University Center for Automotive Research (OSU CAR) believed in our vision. At the time OSU CAR was only ten years old. I remember my visit there like it was yesterday. Giorgio showed me space on the 2nd floor that was being used by the OSU Theater Department for costume storage. He explained their plans to renovate and create new office space on the 2nd floor. In early 2002, COCFC became the first occupant of that space, rented for $1 per year. In April 2002 in a ceremony at the Ohio Statehouse, our fledgling non-profit was formally designated as the 82nd Clean Cities coalition by the U.S. DOE, joining coalitions designated in Cincinnati in 1997 and Cleveland in 1999.
We worked hard, developed programs, and turned many more into believers. We raised money through membership dues and a few notable early funders, including Honda of America Manufacturing, Ohio Soybean Council, Ohio Air Quality Development Authority, Ohio Department of Development, and U.S. Department of Energy. Private foundations, additional industry, and government funders followed later.
As we grew, stakeholders and funders asked us to assume a greater role statewide. In 2005, the Board formally changed our name to Clean Fuels Ohio. We worked in partnership with the other two designated coalitions. Within a few years, hosts of the Cincinnati-based coalition discontinued operations. Then at the end of 2017, Earth Day Coalition, host of the Cleveland-based coalition, shut its doors. Clean Fuels Ohio became the sole Clean Cities coalition serving Ohio.
What I Love About Clean Cities and Clean Fuels Ohio:
Our secrets to success have been the same things I love most about Clean Cities and especially Clean Fuels Ohio:
- Incredible Fundamental Theory of Change
- Relentless Focus on Mission and Outcomes
- Passionate and Talented People
Clean Cities Theory of Change: I don’t know anything else like Clean Cities. It’s a federal program that unites a collection of diverse, independently governed “coalitions,” supported by unsurpassed technical resources, and focused on advanced, sustainable, domestic transportation fuels and vehicle technologies. Rather than using a top-down strategy of picking winners, Clean Cities is focused on goals of energy security, air quality, economic prosperity, equity, and climate. Local stakeholders and markets drive choices among technologies to achieve these goals. Coalition leaders are highly embedded in and trusted by their communities. Some groups only venture into and find success in certain places. But our relationships built on trust enable us to work and achieve success in “red” communities and states as well as “blue” ones.
Mission and Outcomes: “Mission creep” is tempting for any non-profit. Some funders can be whimsical, and it’s easy to chase dollars while losing track of the fundamental purpose. Before long, the organization doesn’t know who it is, and no one else does either. As Tom Peters counseled in In Search of Excellence, Clean Fuels Ohio, like Clean Cities, “sticks to its knitting” and played the long game, even when doing that was hard. We also relentlessly focused on tangible outcomes. The DOE requires all Clean Cities coalitions to conduct an annual stakeholder survey. Through it we document progress toward mission-aligned outcomes.
Passionate and Talented People: Clean Fuels Ohio’s outstanding staff and Board are typical of many Clean Cities leaders from across the country. This work attracts great people who love our mission and the unique strategies we use in achieving it. I’ve been blessed to work with so many talented people at Clean Fuels Ohio over the years, and equally blessed to work within a great network of peers across the country. Our collective passion is fueled, in part, by the challenge of climbing such a steep mountain. Petroleum has dominated the transportation sector for over 100 years, yet we know that the advanced transportation tools in our toolbox deliver superior performance at inherently lower life cycle costs. With determination, hard work, talent, and access to great resources, we are accelerating the change our communities, country, and world need.
It’s not possible to thank every deserving individual, company, and organization, but I’d like to lift at least a few.
- Thanks to the many talented people who have worked on our staff over many years, especially Andrew Conley and Megan Stein. They have now worked for Clean Fuels Ohio for 13 and 11 years respectively, joining shortly after graduating college, each making a powerful and unique impact.
- Thanks to all who have served as Board members, and especially Board presidents over the years – from Dr. Ahmed Soliman, our first President, to Thea Walsh, who has served these past four years.
- Thanks to Giorgio Rizzoni and the entire team at the OSU Center for Automotive Research, who provided office space, IT and communications support, access to equipment, meeting space and more for nominal cost at the beginning when we couldn’t afford commercial space.
- Thanks to the many funders who believed in our vision and ability to deliver results. Notably, Mark Shanahan championed support from the Ohio Air Quality Development Authority, enabling us to take on a statewide role starting in 2005. John Mitterholzer championed long-standing, consistent funding from the George Gund Foundation and encouraged other funders to look at us. I thank Honda of America and Ohio Soybean Council, our first two major industry members, sponsors, and funders, who paved the way for so many others.
- Thanks to leaders of our 100+ certified Ohio Green Fleets for their belief, passion, and skill in implementing cleaner advanced technologies – biodiesel, ethanol, natural gas, propane Autogas, hydrogen, electricity, and efficiency. It’s hard to single out anyone from this group, but the team at the City of Columbus – Kelly Reagan, Bill Burns and John King have served as a model and challenged so many others through their Green Fleet Action Plan, that we supported as our first consulting project.
- Thanks to leaders like Tim Benford and members of our grassroots Drive Electric Ohio chapters for their vision, passion, and dedication to educating future EV owners and engaging local stakeholders and policymakers.
- Finally, thanks to the Clean Cities team at the U.S. Department of Energy, the national labs, and peers in coalitions across the country. We’ve been inspired and supported by them every day for over twenty years.
It’s been a profound privilege to lead Clean Fuels Ohio for nearly twenty years. I’m confident that the staff, Board, members, and supporters will continue providing strong leadership on advanced transportation in the state of Ohio and beyond. I look forward to following the organization as it delivers even greater impact in the years ahead.