Getting to Know Janine Benner, ODOE’s New Assistant Director for Planning and Innovation
In February, we were thrilled to welcome Janine Benner as ODOE’s new Assistant Director for Planning and Innovation. She’ll lead the team that works on energy policy and efficiency – everything from the Renewable Portfolio Standard to technical resources for schools, businesses, and more. Janine replaced Andy Ginsburg, who retired after three years in that role with the department and nearly 30 years of service with the state of Oregon. You recently came to the Oregon Department of Energy from the U.S. Department of Energy. How long were you at USDOE and what roles did you have there?
I was at USDOE for almost three years as a political appointee of the Obama administration. The first two and a half years were in the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, where I was Deputy Assistant Secretary for House Affairs. There, I managed the relationship between the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. House of Representatives. I came to USDOE after working with Congress for 12 years, so it was a great opportunity to use the rather specialized skills I developed – such as being able to identify almost 535 members of Congress by face, which is in no way useful outside of Washington, DC. In the role, I did everything from strategizing with department officials about how to advance legislative priorities, to preparing officials for hearings, to holding briefings for members of Congress and their staff. It was a great way to learn about what USDOE does because I worked on such different issues, from the Iran nuclear deal to energy efficiency to carbon capture and sequestration. For the final five months, I was the Associate Assistant Secretary at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, helping to run the largest government funder of clean energy in the world.
You grew up in Portland, went to Grant High School before getting a degree from Princeton, and worked in DC. How did you wind up back in Oregon and at the Oregon Department of Energy?
After graduating college, I spent a couple years in Los Angeles and then jumped at the opportunity to work in Washington D.C. for my hometown congressman, Earl Blumenauer, which turned out to be a great way to keep my connection to Oregon. I spent 16 years in D.C., and though I grew to love the city, I missed Oregon and my family, and I missed being close to the outdoors. Moving back to Oregon was always part of the five-year plan, but that stretched out to 16 years. When my husband was offered a job teaching law at the University of Oregon, it was an opportunity we couldn’t turn down. ODOE seemed like a perfect fit – an opportunity to combine my background working on energy at the federal level and my understanding of what matters to Oregon into a job helping the state that I love.
Any first impressions on the difference between doing energy policy at the federal level versus the state level?
With the federal government likely to pull back on action in clean energy and climate change, it’s more important than ever that states like Oregon continue to make progress. ODOE helps make sure we stay in the lead but in a way that works for all Oregonians. At the federal level, I thought a lot about research and development priorities and market transformation. Here in Oregon, the market is transforming right in front of our eyes, and ODOE plays a big role in that. The agency brings people together, facilitating conversations and contributing thoughtful and creative ideas about what the goals should be and how to get there.
Which projects at the Oregon Department of Energy are you most excited about today?
Well, I hesitate to pick favorites, and I’m excited about everything that ODOE works on, but I like the big picture – the more proactive projects that are part of our strategic plan, such as figuring out how to integrate distributed generation and exploring a path to net-zero energy buildings. I feel lucky to be part of the conversation about solving Oregon’s energy challenges. I’m especially excited about what’s happening related to climate change and working with stakeholders to figure out how we’re going to meet Oregon’s ambitious goals.
Your late mother made a name for herself in energy efficiency. Your father was well-known in Oregon land-use circles. Did your mom win the influence game?
I’ve never thought about it that way before; I guess you could say that she did. (Just don’t tell my dad!) I do think about her a lot as I tackle energy challenges that I know she worked on and meet people who worked with her. But even though I’ve apparently become an energy policy person, I still think it all boils down to land use and livability. Energy is a key element of that, of course, but where and how people live on the land is key. I'm excited to explore where land use and energy overlap.
Given what you know about energy, in what ways has that knowledge enhanced your life outside of the office?
It makes for more interesting conversations with my husband, who is also involved in energy policy. I’m sure it has impacted some of the decisions we’ve made in our lives. For example, we just purchased an electric car. It was a good deal and a great car, but we also bought it because wanted to walk the walk, or drive the drive.
How do you spend you your time away from the office?
We live in Eugene, which is a new city to me, so I’ve enjoyed getting to know it. Since we’ve moved to Oregon, it’s been raining. Once it gets a little sunnier, I look forward to exploring the outdoors with our two young kids. We enjoy visiting my family in Portland. I also love to cook…and eat. I hope to spend lots of time exploring the restaurant scene in Portland!