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James Newcomb Bolsters RMI’s Electricity-Sector Efforts

By Cameron Burns

James NewcombA respected veteran of utility-sector strategy and planning has joined RMI to bolster the Institute’s efforts to drive the transition from coal and oil to efficiency and renewables. As program director, James Newcomb brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in energy markets, renewable energy policy, energy finance, and behavioral economics. He is applying his expertise to RMI’s Next Generation Utility (NGU) initiative, a multi-year effort to catalyze a transition to a reliable low- or no-carbon electricity system.

“A good friend to RMI for many years, James Newcomb is a recognized thought leader and has been driving breakthrough innovations in the utility and biofuels sectors for some time,” said RMI CEO Michael Potts. “He brings a thoughtfulness and depth of understanding, and is already adding great value to our Next Generation Utility initiative, as well as our wider cross-industry work. We are very grateful to have James as a program director. With Amory Lovins, Stephen Doig, Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson, and now James, we have a true ‘dream team’ to drive the efficient and restorative use of resources.”

Newcomb’s diverse career experience is well-suited to the wider mission of NGU and RMI. Most recently, he served as group manager for markets and policy at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), where he helped to lead the Renewable Electricity Futures study (REFs) for the U.S. Department of Energy. The multi-million-dollar study engaged experts from national laboratories and private industry to analyze the technical and economic issues associated with delivering 80 percent of the U.S. electricity supply from renewable sources by 2050.

“REFs provides an unprecedented window into the operational issues of managing variable renewable supplies on the grid and the complementary roles of efficiency, demand response, energy storage, distributed resources, and electric vehicles,” Newcomb notes. “RMI is uniquely positioned to help facilitate the transition to high renewable electricity futures because of our cross-sector work that includes buildings, transportation, and industry.”

Newcomb is no stranger to RMI. From 1992 to 2000, he served as president and CEO of RMI’s Boulder-based for-profit spinoff E source, which provided information on energy-efficient technology and energy services to electric and gas utilities, corporate energy managers, and other organizations around the world. E source built strong relationships with dozens of senior executives from U.S. electric utilities who participated in retreats, roundtables, and other events. In 1999, E source was sold to the Financial Times, a division of Pearson plc, for $18 million.

“One of the opportunities I’m especially excited about at RMI today is to establish ongoing, multi-stakeholder research collaborations using the same type of business model we developed at E source and engaging donors, utilities, large energy users, and technology companies,” Newcomb says.

Newcomb brings many tools to bear at RMI. At NREL, he launched a research program in behavioral economics to better understand what drives customer adoption of new energy-efficient or renewable-energy technologies. “The emerging research in this field is incredibly useful in helping to guide markets and policies based on knowledge of how people actually behave and what motivates them to change,” he says.

Also at NREL, Newcomb spearheaded new research into U.S. and global patterns of technological innovation in renewable energy, using network theory to understand collaboration among researchers and inventors. The insights from this research help guide more efficient spending on R&D that drives clean-tech innovation.

Newcomb also has extensive experience in the oil and gas industry, and in the biofuels sector. Before coming to Colorado to lead the E source spin-off, Newcomb was managing director for natural gas at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a premier oil and gas sector consultancy. “Natural gas is very much back on the agenda for the U.S. electric utility sector, as both a competitor and a complement to efficiency and renewables,” says Newcomb. “Our NGU initiative is focused on helping to achieve the best portfolio of electricity supplies for the long-term future, taking into consideration the full range of economic, security, and environmental considerations.”

In addition to his professional experience as an energy analyst and executive, Newcomb has a lifelong interest in biology, resilience, and energy systems in nature. “At the end of the day we still have a lot to learn from the efficiency and elegance of energy management in living systems,” he says. Making the transition to a sustainable electricity system, he suggests, will entail managing variable renewable natural resources, just as living systems have been doing for billions of years.

Cameron Burns is a senior editor at RMI.

--Published February 2011

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