Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute's

Latest News
Climate Week NYC: Alexa Voytek (MARS-REERS ’13) on Her Work in the Energy Sphere
September 23, 2021

Can you tell us, briefly, about what you do?

I am an Energy Programs Administrator within the Governor-designated State Energy Office for Tennessee (the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Office of Energy Programs). I oversee the office’s “Energy in Transportation” programming; provide education, outreach, technical assistance, and funding/financing opportunities related to a number of energy related issues (e.g., energy efficiency, renewable energy, energy security, etc.); and also administer the state’s initial allocation ($45.7 million) under the Volkswagen Diesel Settlement Environmental Mitigation Trust. I also serve as the Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities Middle-West Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, through which I act as a technical resource for fleets and individuals evaluating alternative fuels and advanced vehicle technologies. I serve on the leadership team for the National Association of State Energy Officials’ Transportation Committee and am also the Governor’s designee to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Regional Energy Resource Council, which provides guidance on how TVA manages its energy resources against competing objectives and values.

How did your time studying the region inform your work in the energy sphere? 

Russia has always had a sphere of influence when it comes to oil and gas politics within the region. My first real exposure to the leveraging of energy politics as a foreign policy instrument as well as the use of alternative fuels in transportation (e.g., Gazprom Export’s push for the use of compressed natural gas as a vehicle fuel) took place when I was studying at the Harriman Institute. Additionally, while at Harriman, the evolving federalist landscape in Russia and the variables that have impacted relative regional autonomy over time were of great interest to me. Now, as a state energy official, the topic of state v. federal jurisdiction and authority is quite relevant. My understanding of such dynamics within the Russian context has definitely informed the work that I now do as a sub-national actor working to shape policy and program development within the energy sphere.

 What advice do you have for current students of regional studies considering working on climate-related issues?

I would advise students to dig into the work happening at the sub-national level within the region. A lot of focus and emphasis is on national actors and their policies, but a lot of the work that is being done is happening at the state or local levels. Each type of actor brings a unique set of tools to the table to chip away at the issue, so there can be great value in digging one layer deeper to understand what motivates the actions and decisions of local governments, metropolitan planning organizations, utilities (both natural gas and electric), academic researchers and national laboratories, non-profits and advocacy groups, state governmental entities (e.g., Departments of Transportation and Departments of Environmental Protection), private sector companies, etc. I would also suggest that students familiarize themselves with the vernacular of the industry by reading news from targeted outlets or listening to podcasts – E&E News is one of my favorite written publications on topics related to energy and the environment. Greentech Media’s “The Energy Gang” is also a great podcast to check out.

Which climate issue is most important to you?

Emissions from the electric power sector, where coal has been on the decline, are trending downward; appliance and building efficiencies have also increased, resulting in a decrease in residential, commercial, and industrial sector emissions. However, transportation-related energy consumption and emissions are at an all-time high. In fact, the transportation sector is responsible for both the highest percentage of Tennessee’s end-use energy consumption and the largest source of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel consumption. The continued increase in transportation-related emissions stems from overall increases in vehicle miles traveled, spurred by intermittently lower gasoline prices and population growth. So what can we do to ensure that our communities can sustain increased job and population growth, economic development, and an affordable cost of living, while making sure that we do not sacrifice our natural resources and good air quality? The billions of vehicle miles traveled per year represent a huge opportunity to be more efficient and less carbon-intensive with our mobility,  and the use of alternative fuels, advanced vehicle technologies, idle reduction practices, and trips avoided are a few of the many ways to get there.