Q&A | Mark Ferron: Moving Quickly, Finding Balance

Maida Brankman
Liminal Fund

In May 2015, at the one-year anniversary of Cohort 12's graduation, I contacted members of my cohort with an invitation to reflect on what they have learned since completing the TPW Intensive Program. This is a transcript of an interview with Mark Ferron, which has been edited for clarity.

Q: Take us back to the end of our intensive program last May. What was top of mind for you then?

MF: When I made my presentation to Cohort 12 in May 2015, I had mapped out a pretty clear theory of change and several specific tangible steps that I was going to take. In particular:
1. Addressing climate change means ramping up clean energy and there is an “inevitability” to the transition to clean energy, given economic and environmental forces, but philanthropy can help shape and accelerate the transition;
2. My focus should be on California policy levers for change—particularly, “playing offense” by challenging Governor Brown (and others) to set bold and ambitious climate/clean energy goals and “playing defense” by helping to prevent this bold vision from being watered down by fossil fuel and traditional utility interests in the legislative and regulatory process;
3. A combination of a small amount of funding coupled with my personal time coaching (and funding) a few organizations—the Sierra Club, VoteSolar, Voices for Progress, The Solutions Project—would pay the most dividends.

Q: In what ways has your philanthropy in the past year been impacted by what we learned in the intensive?

MF: So far, things have run pretty much to plan, and I have more-or-less ticked off the various actions steps that I was going to take. For example, I have been advising the organizations mentioned earlier and have helped to fund several new policy advocates working today in Sacramento on a number of clean energy bills in the Legislature. I have also invested in a mission-driven software start-up that seeks to open up opportunities on the distribution grid for new clean energy competitors. 

Q: What challenges have come up for you, and how have you addressed them?

MF: I have found that things have moved along more quickly than I had imagined that they would or could (in a positive way!) that I am struggling to keep up, given the limited amount of time that I have to spend on this. I am 100 percent clear that I cannot make pursuing this activity a “full time job” and yet I feel that there is so much to be done. I am very happy that TPW is forming a group of members who are interested in climate change and clean energy, but even then I have not had the time to do much more than be a passive participant. 

Q: What is your vision for the year ahead? How about three years out?

MF: During the last year and a half I had been holding off on formal board commitments, but on July 2 2015, Governor Brown appointed me to the Board of Governors of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). The CAISO is the non-profit public benefit corporation responsible for maintaining electricity reliability and managing the flow of electricity across the high-voltage, long-distance power lines. The key energy policy issue today is how to integrate high levels of intermittent renewable energy (specifically the rapidly growing amount of solar) so the CAISO is at the center of this debate. This is a pretty much the perfect job for me now: I can stay current and relevant and leverage my relationships and experience, while maintaining a flexible time commitment.  The appointment runs until the end of 2018, so I expect this will occupy the bulk of my time for the next three years.

Q: So is it accurate to say that the CAISO appointment will help resolve some of your challenges to balance your available time with your awareness of how much there is to be done? Can you expand a bit more on both what you think you may have to let go and what can be rolled into your CAISO board work?

MF: My appointment to the CAISO Board does appear to have a pretty profound impact on my involvement with other organizations operating in the energy policy arena, at least in California. Under California and Federal law, I am prohibited from investing in, providing consulting services to or otherwise being employed by any actual or potential participant in any market administered by the CAISO. The CAISO’s legal department is still reviewing the details of my situation, but it seems likely that I will be unable to participate directly as a board member of the Sierra Club Foundation or VoteSolar, and I will need to be very careful to avoid the appearance on a conflict of interest by engaging with these organizations on matters which may come before the Board of the CAISO.  However, as a CAISO Board member, I will get “insider” access to the policy debate on clean energy and climate in California and will have a more direct impact on the legislative and regulatory process.

Up next: An interview with Tony Stayner, who reflects on the power of the TPW network members to facilitate meaningful connections to causes.

Mark Ferron is interested in the intersection of Energy, the Environment, Finance and Philanthropy. Mark currently serves on the Board of Governors of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). The CAISO manages the flow of electricity across most of California's high-voltage, long-distance power lines and helps promote clean and reliable energy. From 2011 to 2014, Mark served as Commissioner on the California Public Utilities Commission, where he focused on policies promoting renewable energy.

Maida Brankman is director of Liminal Fund, which supports documentary filmmaking, and is on the board of Working Films.

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