ThinkProgress Features Sean Casten

Progressive candidates are embracing clean energy as a campaign issue

By Joe Romm on October 19, 2017

Sean Casten “grew up around climate and business,” as he puts it. His father, Tom, is one of the country’s leading clean energy entrepreneurs and advocates for climate action, having built up a business doing cogeneration — the highly efficient combined generation of heat and power (which I wrote about here in 2008).

“That instilled a passion in me to do the same, first studying biology as an undergrad and then getting an M.S. in Biochemical Engineering, doing research to develop cellulosic biofuels,” the younger Casten told ThinkProgress. “My first job out of graduate school was at [consulting firm] Arthur D. Little where I was in a group that did technology consulting for a host of emerging clean-tech businesses.”

(I met Casten’s father in the mid-1990s, when I was helping to run the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and have since met Sean in professional circles.)

After consulting, Casten went on to “start several businesses with missions to profitably reduce greenhouse gas emissions – in all cases, using existing technologies to identify waste in industrial facilities that we could recover and convert into useful heat and power.” Over a 10-year period, Casten’s businesses launched 70 projects and invested $200 million in improvements that lowered their customers’ energy bills and reduced carbon emissions by at least 50 percent, he said.

He also participated in crafting the bill that became the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a nine-state program in the Northeast that caps carbon emissions and invests in efficiency and clean energy projects.

Now, Casten is running for Congress to make it easier for clean energy businesses to grow and thrive. “Like most in the clean energy industry, I soon came to appreciate that while there were a lot of opportunities for folks like me, the policy barriers to clean energy are massive,” he said.

Across the board, “we so desperately need to see a return to fact-based policy making in Washington,” he said. But “climate policy remains my passion.” Casten would like to bring some of the ideas he developed with a friend, Ken Colburn, who is now at the Regulatory Assistance Project, during the early stages of RGGI.

Getting a nationwide RGGI through Congress — much less signed by this president — would be a daunting if not impossible task, but it’s not the only thing on his agenda.

“At a smaller level there are a ton of small but massively impactful things that could be done within the context of existing climate policy,” he said. And he knows his stuff — one example of his ideas would be “to make modest changes in the Major Modifications definition innate to the New Source Review rules in the Clean Air Act so as to eliminate the existing disincentives to invest in energy efficiency.”

So far, Casten said, voters have responded positively. “I decided from the start that I would be a candidate that I would want to vote for as a voter – someone who tells us what they really think…. And so far, that approach has worked pretty well,” he said. Illinois’ 6th district covers an area “from Argonne National Lab in the southeast to Fermilab in the Northwest,” so its voters aren’t your usual cross-section of the country.

“It’s a very highly-educated, scientifically minded set of voters,” Casten said. “They are people who value facts, and are generally pretty centrist —  bipartisan — in their world view. The second-most important issue to voters in our district after healthcare is climate change.” he said.

“These people get it.”