THE INNOVATORS

These eight changemakers are unparalleled in their contributions to their industries — and they're out while they're doing it.

BY Advocate Contributors

August 10 2011 4:00 AM ET

KRISTINA JOHNSON XLRG (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COMKristina Johnson
54 • Washington, D.C
Energy

It takes serious brains, a rainmaker’s résumé, and diehard passion to stand out among the luminaries at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Kristina M. Johnson, who left her post as undersecretary in the Department of Energy for the Obama administration in November, fits the description. Her excitement on trending green energy topics — biofuels or anaerobic composting, for instance — was palpable as she spoke to The Advocate upon returning from the annual event, which this summer drew the likes of former president Bill Clinton, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, and MIT economist and poverty expert Esther Duflo.

“If we can learn to communicate all of these positive advances, and learn from the best practices, our efforts are really going to be amplified,” Johnson says.

With the administration’s lofty goal of generating 80% of the country’s electricity through clean sources by 2035, private-sector innovation and funding are critical. And Johnson’s consulting firm, Enduring Energy, is helping to make that happen. Her primary focus is finding a way to significantly raise the nation’s hydroelectric output without building new dams.

Reflecting on her two-year political tenure, Johnson says she’s optimistic that Washington will be proactive on green issues for economic as well as environmental reasons. “Rational individuals elected to Congress will do the right thing, and what needs to be done is a cap on greenhouse emissions. The health care costs alone from a carbon-based economy are a third- to a half-trillion dollars each year,” she says, citing a study published in February by Paul Epstein, associate director of the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, on coal power’s disastrous public health consequences.

A former provost at Johns Hopkins University who holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University (as well as 45 patents), Johnson traces her green energy inspiration back to the inaugural Earth Day in 1970 — and an early eco-mentor.

“I had a great eighth-grade teacher who was really pro-environment and taught me a lot about recycling,” she recalls. “So I cleaned all the fields around our house. Pretty soon our entire basement was filled with aluminum cans.” —Andrew Harmon 

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