Philosophy and Action
David Farnsworth ’78 travels the world, advising utility regulators and private citizens how to reduce their carbon footprints. But he is less an evangelist than a keen connoisseur of eco-friendly energy options. I learned this the hard way recently when I caught up with Farnsworth before he gave a talk in Wellesley, Mass.
To reach Wellesley from my home in New Hampshire, I woke at 4; caught a bus from the state capital, Concord, into Boston’s South Station; and then pedaled my bicycle 15 miles west through the city’s affluent suburbs. When I arrived, perspiring, my trouser cuffs speckled with grease, Farnsworth regarded me with an appreciative grin.
“Multimodal,” he said, sizing up my carbon-reduction tactics. “You took the Jimmy Carter approach. You know, turn the heat down a little, wear a sweater. Suffer.”
Soon, at the podium, Farnsworth began extolling the wonders of other, more evolved methods of slashing carbon emissions. “Electrification – the replacement of direct fossil-fueled uses in ways that reduce overall emissions and energy costs!” he reveled. “Unless your car gets more than 45 miles a gallon, an electric vehicle will be less carbon-intensive than a gas-powered one, even if the electricity comes from a coal plant.”
Farnsworth had graphs for the 40 assembled affiliates of the Wellesley Green Collaborative. He had a colorful PowerPoint, and throughout he struck a surprisingly hopeful note, stressing the promise that electrification can bring to a warming world that is ever more inclined to consume energy. In 2016, he said, “America’s power system emitted just as much carbon as in 1990. But it produced 30 percent more energy. The system has become much cleaner and more efficient!”
Appreciative oohs and ahs rippled through the room, as though Farnsworth had just uncorked a rare vintage of pinot noir. But this was an easy audience for Farnsworth, who since 2008 has been with Regulatory Assistance Project (for a decade as senior associate, and since earlier this year, as principal), a Montpelier, Vermont-based nonprofit whose energy advice is funded not by client, but by foundations. Mostly, he meets with regulators, including the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, even the energy regulatory commissioners of Mongolia, officed in Ulaanbaatar, one of the world’s smoggiest cities. These people are, he says, “very conservative. They’re spending millions of dollars of public money, and they’re exceedingly careful.”
Farnsworth speaks to these folks in the language of pragmatism—his slideshows dwell on cost savings and “better grid management.” He never tells anyone what they should do. Rather, he avails them of options, discussing, say, the pros and cons of having utility companies, rather than vehicle owners, pay for electrical vehicle charging stations. He helps guide clients toward decisions that are at once sensible, green, and so rooted in such nuanced discussions that Farnsworth is professionally enjoined from discussing results. “We’re not advocates,” he stresses, alluding to his RAP cohorts. “We’re advisors.”
Forty-odd years ago, as he studied philosophy and jammed with other folk musicians on Mayflower Hill, Farnsworth was an unlikely policy geek. “If somebody said the words ‘public utility commission’ to me,” he tells me over coffee at a Wellesley café, “I’d probably fall asleep.” Even today, Farnsworth abides in the artiste margins. He plays guitar and mandolin in a band, the Snakes of Ireland, and in 2014 he teamed with his daughter, Ella Farnsworth, to produce an hour-long documentary on the Texas/Maine singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves. Still, he can get giddy about energy policy. “It’s a platform for the entire economy,” he explains. “It’s a huge lever.”
Farnsworth’s path to wonkery began, arguably, in Rwanda, where, as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1980s, he taught English to the country’s most academically gifted university students. He grew enchanted with empowering his charges, but when he returned stateside, to work in a Maine high school, it wasn’t the right fit. “Teaching [high school] is a calling,” he says, “and I just didn’t have the patience.”
Farnsworth still wanted to change the world, however, so at age 35 he enrolled in Vermont Law School. It was 1990. The 1970 Clean Air Act was updated that year, and after Farnsworth took a class on air pollution controls, he was so intrigued that he began working as the professor’s research assistant. Soon, he pitched the law school a novel proposal—that it extend its reach outside the U.S. to Eastern Europe, where former Soviet republics were awash in pollution as they reinvented themselves in the 1991 collapse of the USSR. There was EPA funding available to train environmental regulators in Eastern Europe, which the school tapped. Farnsworth traveled to Romania and Slovakia to train local regulatory officials on how to improve air and water quality standards. Later, he went on to become a staff attorney for the Vermont Public Service Board (now the Vermont Public Utility Commission), long known for its green outlook.
Today, as the planet warms and the South Pacific threatens to swallow tiny island nations like Tonga and Nauru, Farnsworth says he is forever learning about how complex a problem climate change is. He knows that innovation is needed on myriad fronts, and with his RAP colleagues, he’s co-written white papers considering social justice and urban planning. “Unless we are building affordable housing downtown,” he says, synopsizing, “we’re always going to have poor people in aging cars commuting downtown.”
Embracing cleaner energy isn’t enough, Farnsworth stresses. “I’m worried about marginalized communities being blown off by electrification, and if in ten years we are all sitting in electric vehicles in a traffic jam on Route 93, crawling into Boston—well, then, we haven’t succeeded. I don’t have all the answers. I’m a white guy—an old white guy. But I do know we need to change. We won’t have to, you know, ‘suffer’ (he smirks a little, nodding to the bike helmet sitting beside our empty coffee mugs) but we will definitely need to change.”