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Michael Dworkin

A photo of Michael Dworkin
If you care about the environment, energy policy is the single most important influence.”

Director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment and Professor of Law

 

At age 20, during a college drop-out  job stint at a state "training school," Michael Dworkin was horrified to see middle-aged men struggling with toilet training. These men suffered brain damage because, as children, they had eaten mercury-laden tomatoes or lead paint from window sills. "I went to law school to get heavy metals out of kids' brains," he says.

Fast-forward nine years, past Middlebury College magna cum laude, Harvard Law School cum laude, and a Federal Court clerkship, up to his position as a lawyer at the Environmental Protection Agency: Dworkin helped draft regulations that removed 80 percent of heavy metals out of U.S. waters and successfully defended the regulations in appellate court. "It was extraordinarily satisfying, and proof to me that law can be a tool to make people's lives better," he says.

Today, as a professor at Vermont Law School, Dworkin's prominent role as a strong, sane voice on environment-friendly energy policy is apparent in his CV, which lists 27 pages of accomplishments, honors, publications, judicial decisions, and presentations. He's received an achievement award from the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners for lifetime contributions to "clean energy, good government, and the environment" and been dubbed "the universally acknowledged environmental superstar of utility regulators" by a Natural Resources Defense Council spokesperson.

The unsolicited phone call that propelled him into the energy domain came in 1984 from the chair of the Vermont Public Service Board, looking for a litigator. Eager to move to Vermont from Washington, D.C., with his wife and expected first child, he said "Yes." "My friends thought that utility work was old-fashioned and boring and hardly mattered at all, but I found I had stumbled onto something amazing: If you care about the environment, energy policy is the single most important influence," he says. "Power plant emissions are the largest single source of carbon, mercury, sulphur dioxide, particulates, and greenhouse gases." Working on the regulatory side-the Vermont board sets rates for 22 utilities-gave him leverage. "To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, 'when you have them by the revenues, their hearts and minds will follow'," he chuckles.

As counsel for the board, he drafted orders that lowered Vermont's share of massive cost overruns for a nuclear power plant. He helped shape New England's policy on wholesale energy costs and regional transmission and explored the use of incentives to motivate utilities to encourage efficiency.

Dworkin left in 1995 for a four-year stint in private industry as a management partner of an engineering start-up firm that wired 60 of the 100 tallest skyscrapers in the U.S. with the new fiber-optic technology. As he learned to move nimbly through rapid technological change and build a corporate culture, "I got the equivalent of an MBA in a program I was paid to take," he says, "Emotionally, though, it wasn't as satisfying as pollution-chasing energy work."

In 1999, after a phone call from Governor Howard Dean, he rejoined the public sector as chair of the Vermont Public Service Board. During his tenure, the PSB reduced electricity costs to consumers and lowered emissions to the lowest among U.S. states. In 1999, it launched a groundbreaking statewide energy efficiency agency-the first in the U.S.-that encouraged energy efficiency at the household level over building new power plants. Efficiency Vermont reduced energy use 10 percent in a decade and is being used as a model throughout North America; it won the prestigious Innovations in American Government award from the Kennedy School of Government in 2003. Using the PSB as a "bully pulpit," Dworkin has spoken up for clean energy as a member of national industry boards and is among those leaders who have moved environmental costs into the center of the national energy debate.

When his term as PSB Chair ended in 2005, Dworkin joined VLS full time as professor and director of the new Institute for Energy and the Environment (IEE). "There were a million things I could have done, but I thought the world of VLS, and it was a chance to work hard with students on issues I care about," says Dworkin, who had served as an adjunct professor since 1987.

The IEE supports itself and helps hold down VLS tuition through commissioned research, combining features of a small consulting firm with the post doctorate research of institutes of engineering and science. With contracts topping $1 million this year, its student research associates (nicknamed "Energizers") have produced research on such complex issues as carbon sequestration, biofuels, energy independence for small farmers, and working renewables into the energy grid.  Competition among VLS students for the one- to two-year positions is stiff, with 10 percent of applicants accepted. Dworkin looks for "productivity, dependability, intellectual horsepower, and 'plays well with others.'" Energizer grads are now prodding change in government, industry, nonprofits and the military. He says of them and the students in his increasingly popular advanced classes on U.S. energy policy: "I want them to leave VLS knowing how to do good things that are significant and widespread and enduring."

Throughout his career, Dworkin has worked with close-knit groups of one to two dozen people-a pattern established in his youth. His father, the son of Lower East Side immigrants, became fluent in English reading Dickens on troop-ships in between invasions in the Pacific and went to college on the G.I. Bill, then directed children's services at state and national agencies. His mother, from an old New England family, was a political science and sociology professor who wound up marrying her G.I. Bill student. Her family owned an island on Squam Lake in New Hampshire (On Golden Pond was filmed there), and Dworkin spent entire summers there with his dozen cousins-a process that gave him negotiating skills and a "tactile, hands-on" sense of physical competence from chopping wood, bailing out boats, and rebuilding carburetors.

He still summers there with his wife, Loring Starr, who staffs the Vermont legislature healthcare committee and has a gardening business. Their son, Samuel, is a VLS student; their daughter, Alice, manages the trails, roads, and woods at the 400-acre Camp Hill School farm in Pennsylvania. Given a spare hour in his Montpelier home, Dworkin walks in the woods, paddles a kayak on nearby streams, or reads Civil War history-but that's rare, given a travel schedule that takes him to conferences, meetings, and speaking engagements in the U.S. and China up to 80 days a year. 

"It gives me a chance to show the flag -not just for VLS, but to reach people who can make energy policy healthier," he says. His next career goal is to move carbon control and greenhouse gases "to the center of energy policy action, not just energy policy debate." A tough job perhaps, but he declines to be gloomy about the planet's long-term prospects: "Being pessimistic is dysfunctional; I'm an optimist-because it's useful, and the people around me can make it real."