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Photo of Kit Kennedy

The Negotiator

Using the art of persuasion to forge smart energy solutions

On a brilliant autumn day, Kit Kennedy left behind the appellate courtrooms and hard-nosed negotiation sessions that capture most of her time and did what she loves best about her job: She headed for the field. She boarded a plane bound for Syracuse, New York, picked up a rental car, and drove northeast to a small town in New York's dairy country to attend the dedication ceremony for the Maple Ridge wind farm. The air was crisp and clear, and as hundreds of people gathered under a tent to celebrate, white turbines rose gracefully beside dairy cows, working pastures, and scarlet foliage.

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Standing among state officials, farmers, and schoolchildren, Kennedy soaked in the feeling of optimism filling the tent. It doesn't get any better than this, Kennedy thought. She had spent years laying the groundwork for the project, advocating clean energy policy in Albany. Now she was seeing some tangible results: These turbines would make New York State home to the largest wind power operation east of the Mississippi.

Kennedy, an attorney based in NRDC's New York City headquarters and director of the organization's Northeast Energy Project, focuses on finding practical solutions to the nation's most pressing energy problems. Most of her work is done at the state level, where 90 percent of the decisions governing utilities are made.

Three years ago, Kennedy helped design a plan to require 25 percent of New York State's energy to come from renewable sources such as wind and solar by the year 2013. Her pragmatic fixes for what might otherwise have been deal-breaking political and financial obstacles helped persuade the state's utility commission to pass the rule. New York's renewable energy goals rank among the nation's most ambitious; only California and Texas, simply by virtue of their size, are on track to produce more renewable energy than New York.

Kennedy's shrewd negotiations paid off again in 2004 when New York passed energy efficiency standards for products that the federal gov-ernment didn't then regulate -- everyday electricity guzzlers ranging from ceiling fans to commercial freezers. She worked with utilities, regula-tors, and manufacturers to create standards modeled on those established in California following the 2001 blackouts. The push for New York standards was part of an eight-state effort to transform the appliance industry as a whole. It worked: Once the standards passed, manufacturers began lobbying Congress for national standards. Rather than revamping their products to meet different requirements in different states, it would save money to make a single product that could be sold everywhere. Within months, Congress passed standards for almost every product on New York's list.

"Kit is a great teammate," says Ashok Gupta, an NRDC economist. "She doesn't let people off the hook in negotiations."

The mother of two and former marathon runner came to NRDC nearly 20 years ago, after attending Harvard Law School and clerking for a federal judge, to work on urban issues. In her first big case, in 1988, Kennedy won stronger water pollution standards for New York City's 14 sewage plants. "It was my first glimpse of the power that NRDC has to make changes for the better," she says.

Though the courtroom triumphs are satisfying, it is the people she meets along the way that make the victories most meaningful. At the Maple Ridge ceremony, Bill Burke, a fifth-generation farmer whose fields are now home to wind turbines, spoke of the pride he feels in making his family part of a clean energy future. For Kennedy, helping Burke get there made all the tedious paperwork, late-night legal filings, and tense negotiations more than worth the effort.
-- Emily Cousins

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Photo: Steve Halin

OnEarth. Winter 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council