Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A Tribute to Tony Usibelli (Energy News, WA Dept of Commerce, Energy Division, Olympia, WA)

By Howard Schwartz

When I joined the original Washington State Energy Office in 1989, Tony was already a legend in Northwest energy conservation circles. He had just convinced the Bonneville Power Administration to fund an Energy Ideas Clearinghouse – a project he had conceived with other Energy Office staff to provide a one-stop service for commercial energy consumers seeking advice on how to use electricity more efficiently. Long after he moved on to other projects and greater responsibilities, the clearinghouse flourished, attracting funders including the U.S. Department of Energy, becoming national in its coverage and a core of the Washington State University Energy Program.

Tony came to Olympia in 1985 from the Lawrence Berkeley Lab in California, the foremost American research institution on energy efficiency. He was a good fit for the dynamic and innovative Energy Office. Tony had a passion for energy efficiency and clean energy as well as a sense of how the office could be a leading edge of environmental policy.

A key to Tony’s success as a leader is that he is extraordinarily disciplined and organized. To him, effectiveness comes from organizing your own time, and that means spending as little time as possible organizing the time of others. Anyone who has worked with Tony knows that his first principle of managing people is to let them do their jobs. He always tried to hire people who were the smartest, most knowledgeable and willing and able to work on their own. These qualities enabled him to have long runs as the Assistant Director for Energy, Energy Office Director, and Special Assistant to the Director for Energy and Climate Policy.

Tony understood early on that climate change would define energy and environmental policy for the next century. He set out to become a climate expert even as he managed energy efficiency programs. This climate policy vision would stay with him throughout his career, and looking back, it is hard to think of a climate change policy process that did not involve Tony. Here is a sample: Western Climate Initiative? He was the Washington Energy Office representative. Pacific Climate Partnership? He led the Washington staff work for it. Western Interstate Energy Board? He was the Washington member for 20 years and held every executive board position including chair. Washington state legislation and ballot measures? Tony worked with advocates, other state agencies, and the governor’s office to marry sound science and policy with political strategy. National Energy and Climate Policy? For many years Tony was on the Board of Directors of the National Association of State Energy Officials. He has given presentations at hundreds of meetings and conferences around the country and abroad.

You would rarely read in the news media about Tony’s work. As a colleague noted, “Tony seems to know everybody and yet is almost never the one getting the attention.” To those who know Tony, this is hardly surprising. His interest is always in getting the job done, never in taking credit. He is a classic public servant who understands how to support elected officials and their political appointees and to earn their trust. For more than 30 years he has been a trusted source of accurate information and honest advice.

It would be unfair to give Tony all the credit for his career success, because that would overlook the great support he has received from Heidi, his wife of forty years – I know how long, because we share our wedding anniversary dates. In recent years their roles have changed due to illness, and their relationship through this transition has been an inspiring example to the rest of us. As in everything else, Tony adjusts to whatever life hands him and uses his organizational skills to structure his life so what needs to be done gets done. In some sort of care-giving jujitsu, he uses the situation to broaden the experiences that both he and Heidi have. And should I mention that he is also responsible for the care of his mother, who is a centenarian, living in a residential facility in Olympia?

I could go on at length about Tony’s role in fostering recreational bicycling in Olympia, playing many kinds of sports, following professional sports, reading nearly a book a day, keeping up with movies and classical archaeology (his college major), playing bridge, and making bad puns. Instead I will just mention that in addition to all of his other attributes, he has been a great and loyal friend to me and others whom he and Heidi have known for decades. I know that Tony will be missed in government circles, but I also know that he will continue to make Olympia and the broader community a better place to live and work.

Howard Schwartz worked at the Washington State Energy Office from 1989 until his retirement in 2013.