Remembering Linda Latham

September 30, 2011

I wanted to take a moment to honor a major loss in the energy efficiency community. Linda Latham died this past weekend from her second bout with a very aggressive breast cancer. Linda was instrumental in launching the US government’s ENERGY STAR programs in the 1990s and was the chief operating officer of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a non-profit research and advocacy group. The EPA used to be a straight regulatory body but in 1994, when I first met Linda, things were changing. That’s when a few people, including Linda, were proving a new concept through a small program called Green Lights. Simply put, Green Lights tried to get businesses to commit to switching from old fluorescent light bulbs to new efficient ones that used 40% less energy and returned a stunning 40% return on investment. The trick was getting people to think of lighting as an investment. This was a brand new idea at the time – an idea that made perfect mathematical sense on paper wasn’t getting off the ground because it required an upfront investment in building maintenance to make large-scale retrofits. The energy-saving bulbs were trapped in a cycle where without big buyers, sellers were reluctant to make the bulbs, and the cost couldn’t come down. But Linda and a small group devised a plan to get major companies – Johnson & Johnson, AMEX, GE, City of New York, IBM, Gillette, and many others – to upgrade all their lighting when, and only when, the return was 20% or greater, far greater than the 12% US average return on capital. In return, the EPA would walk them through the process, provide technical support and, crucially as it would turn out, provide marketing and PR support. It worked. Big buyers came, big sellers produced, costs came down, building managers got actual investment dollars, and this unleashed massive and profitable energy savings in the commercial building space, which accounts for about 20% of US emissions. From this success, EPA hired a number of people, myself included, to expand Green Lights into dozens of the now internationally recognized ENERGY STAR programs we know today. Building certification, like LEED, and the whole idea of a building as an asset was new and owes its beginning to ideas Linda helped develop. Linda eventually left EPA and moved to California, and I left EPA and moved to Eastern Europe.  When I returned to the United States years later, I looked up my old friend Linda and was excited to learn she was at a consulting firm three blocks from me in Silver Spring, MD. After discovering this coincidence and some discussion, she hired me again. Linda and I had a joke that once every ten years it was her job to hire me. I always admired Linda’s gift as a manager, an ability to remain calm, focused, know the subject matter and to motivate others. Management is a very difficult skill set and Linda was a master. She was always fair and likable. During our time working together, Linda was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. It was a shock, and we all missed her at the office, but she recovered and had a sense of humor about her situation. We drifted apart (again) after I left to run, but she is always on my calendar every ten years. Linda’s career is a testament to the power of ideas, that government can and often is a force for good and even that markets don’t always work as we’d like. Linda taught us that people matter. Linda Latham was an extraordinary person and will be missed.