Sean O’Brien vividly remembers watching the Bush vs. Gore debates.
He’s not the only one who tuned in. Millions of people watched the two politicians spar during the 2000 presidential election. But O’Brien wasn’t exactly voting age; he was in middle school.
The Beaverton, Oregon, native fell in love with politics early – and his passion for the political world has shaped much of his adult life, taking him from a college internship with U.S. Rep Cathy McMorris Rodgers to a long working relationship with U.S. Rep Dan Newhouse.
Now the 34-year-old is tapping into the expertise and connections he gained during his time in politics to take on a new role in the Tri-Cities: the first-ever executive director of the Energy Forward Alliance.
He’ll lead the brand-new organization, which is based at the Tri-City Development Council, or TRIDEC, and aims to help the region transition to a clean energy future.
“It’s really exciting to me to be able to take that policy perspective I was deep into (while working in politics) and come home and apply it directly to implement new ideas,” O’Brien told the Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business.
The community leaders who worked to establish the alliance say O’Brien is the right person for the job, bringing a unique mix of skills and experience to the table.
“The expertise and leadership that Sean will bring to this new role will continue the Tri-Cities’ legacy of helping solve the nation’s most important and impactful challenges,” said Karl Dye, TRIDEC chief executive officer, in a statement. “The need now is for a sustainable future – to not only leave our children and grandchildren with a safe place to raise their own families, but to capture the jobs and economic benefits that embracing a clean energy future will bring to the region. We are excited for Sean to join our TRIDEC team and look forward to him building upon EFA’s mission.”
Paula Linnen, a member of the alliance’s executive committee, added in the statement that, “Sean’s long-standing relationships with regional community leaders and officials make him a natural choice for this influential role to help the Tri-Cities be recognized as an energy leader.”
Bob Schuetz, CEO of Energy Northwest, called O’Brien an “engaging and innovative leader.” He has a “deep understanding of the energy arena and our challenges moving ahead with the clean energy transformation,” Schuetz said in the statement.
O’Brien started on Nov. 1. He got to know the area while working for Rep. Newhouse, a Republican who represents a large swath of Central Washington, including the Tri-Cities. In O’Brien’s eight years with Newhouse, he worked his way from junior staffer to legislative director and deputy chief of staff, taking the lead on energy, forestry and natural resources issues. He also ran Newhouse’s first reelection campaign and his campaign to become chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, a coalition of more than 80 members of Congress. O’Brien served as the caucus executive director.
In that latter role, “we’d take members of Congress, industry groups and congressional staff and go to rural communities – communities like ours that are on the front lines of working with energy, natural resources, public lands issues. We’d go on tours, hearing from local voices, hearing from the folks who are implementing and deploying the very policies that were being passed in Washington, D.C.,” O’Brien said. “I’m excited to apply some of those concepts to the energy sphere here in the Tri-Cities.”
O’Brien said he loved working in politics and working for Newhouse, but “there’s a burnout factor” grinding away in D.C. He fell in love with the Tri-Cities on his many trips to the area and took a job here as Eastern Washington director for the Washington Policy Center, an independent think tank.
When the Energy Forward Alliance position came along, he jumped at the chance to be able to follow projects through to fruition, something he loved about working in Rep. Newhouse’s office.
“With this opportunity, I get to do that firsthand, every day. We’re working with local governments, community leaders and businesses on the cutting edge of clean energy innovation and actually trying to get these projects done. It’s not just saying, ‘Hey, that would be a good idea, maybe someone will do it.’ We’re going to be the ones to help execute it,” O’Brien said.
The alliance grew out of discussions among Central Plateau Cleanup Company (CPCCo), Energy Northwest, Lamb Weston, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Washington State University Tri-Cities, convened by TRIDEC. It was announced this past August.
O’Brien sees the alliance as having an ambassadorial role, ensuring that “we’re coalescing and galvanizing the community to get behind this effort to move into a clean energy future,” and as helping to recruit new clean energy businesses to the region.
With projects like a zero-carbon fertilizer plant and an advanced small modular nuclear reactor project on the horizon, it’s an exciting time, he said. He also pointed to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Cleanup to Clean Energy initiative and reporting that the U.S. will lead a pledge to triple nuclear power by 2050.
He’s excited to take the reins of the alliance, which has a website and will have a board of directors.
“I’m really humbled by it. I’m grateful that this group of executives and CEOs from our community came together to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to make the concerted effort to demonstrate that we want to be on the front lines and embrace this opportunity and not just hope that it happens,’” O’Brien said. “It’s that coming together in demonstration of leadership to say we want to embrace this moment and use our collective expertise to move the needle.”
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