Across four decades, Ann McCabe has worked to align energy creation with the environment. Along the way, she’s supporting others trying to tackle the same challenge.
Ann McCabe, AM'82

Katy Koon, MPP’20, hit the job market as a new Harris graduate during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, navigating a heightened level of uncertainty, anxiety, and financial pressures while taking part-time and internship work.

The time was unprecedented, and the struggles real. But she was lucky to have a powerful ally in her corner: Ann McCabe, AM’82, a national leader in energy and environmental policy with a quarter-century of extensive regulatory experience in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

“Ann was there every step of the way,” Koon recalled, “connecting me virtually with other Harris alumni and contacts she knew to ensure I had opportunities to expand my network even as we were all isolating at home.”

McCabe read Koon’s cover letters, sent her resume to prospective employers, advised Koon on who to talk with before going on interviews. Before the COVID-19 outbreak in March of 2020, she met Koon often for coffee, drinks, and meals to chat, strategize, and keep her spirits high.

“She had confidence in me when it was hard for me to have confidence in myself,” added Koon, who landed a job as an economic analyst at Regional Economic Models, Inc. “I can’t overemphasize the fact that as Ann was going above and beyond as my mentor, she was also helping Harris students and grads who were not assigned to her in the Harris Mentor Program. To Ann, mentorship didn’t just mean helping one student, it meant supporting Harris as a whole community.”

While building a prominent career in energy and environmental policy, McCabe has mentored and otherwise helped numerous Harris Public Policy students and alums since the 1990s. About five years ago, she created an energy and environmental group of Harris alumni in the Chicago area. In 2019, she taught two energy and environmental policy labs at the school.

That commitment to mentorship and the Harris community is one reason why McCabe is receiving the 2021 Career Achievement Award, presented to an alumnus who has served as a significant leader in the public, private or nonprofit sector creating meaningful, positive change within their institution and society.

“Malcolm Gladwell said there are three different kinds of people,” McCabe said, referring to the best-selling author’s concept of the individuals needed to spark a “tipping point” when an idea begins to spread rapidly. “I would be a connector and a networker. It’s in my DNA.”

Speak with anyone she’s helped, and it becomes clear McCabe is much more than that. A person of extraordinary generosity might be the best way to describe McCabe and her professional philosophy.

And generosity from someone with the varied, deep experience McCabe possesses—twice a delegate to the United Nations Climate Conference, an Illinois Commerce Commissioner for five years, a regulatory expert at two large energy corporations and the U.S. Programs Manager and Principal at a leading international clean energy and environmental policy organization—has proven to be immensely valuable to those she has helped. It also has created a sizable ripple effect.

“Ann is unrivaled in her commitment to supporting early-career professionals in energy and environmental policy,” Kate Tomford, MSESP’07, senior energy analyst at the Chicago Transit Authority, wrote of McCabe in support of her nomination. The two met in 2005 when Tomford was a Harris student. She called McCabe “a truly exceptional person” who is internationally renowned, a role model to countless colleagues in the field and a revered mentor to generations of Harris students.

“I would be a connector and a networker. It’s in my DNA.” – Ann McCabe

A native of Columbus, Ohio, McCabe majored in political science at Williams College in Massachusetts. When she was considering graduate school, her advisor suggested Harris—then known as the Committee on Public Policy Studies—where Robert Aliber, a Williams alum, was Chair of the Committee and business school economics and finance professor.

The program that would become Harris was in its second year when McCabe came to Hyde Park. She recalled strong instructors who emphasized distilling complex topics to 1-2 page pages. She also recalled a class of about 55 students -- “We could all fit around a really large table” — and an atmosphere that built close friendships across the group.

She had taken an energy class in grad school, but an internship in then-Governor Jim Thompson’s office during her second year of grad school set McCabe on the path that would become her career.

Her supervisor in the governor’s office encouraged McCabe to apply for a job at the Bureau of the Budget, which she did and was hired. Her agencies included the Department of Conservation and the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC).

A short time after joining the Bureau of the Budget “in classic agency capture theory,” McCabe was recruited to work at the Commerce Commission as a commissioner’s assistant.

“That kind of spurred my interest in energy and the environment,” she recalled. McCabe became fascinated with the interconnectedness of, and challenges in, the two—that producing energy creates environmental issues; that energy is a central part of life and finding ways to do it more efficiently and sustainably is vital to humankind.

Through a referral by a former ICC chairman, she moved to the State of Illinois office in Washington, D.C. to be an associate director, developing positions on Clean Air Act amendments and environmental and energy issues. She served as a liaison to Illinois’ Congressional delegation.

“Ann is unrivaled in her commitment to supporting early-career professionals in energy and environmental policy.” – Kate Tomford, MSESP’07

Stints in the regulatory offices of Amoco and BP followed, from 1990 through part of 2001. McCabe became Associate Director at the Delta Institute, the Chicago-based nonprofit that supports Midwest communities solving complex environmental challenges, then a principal at an environmental policy and advocacy firm in Chicago, Policy Solutions Ltd.

In January of 2020, she took the role of U.S. Program Director and Principal for The Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), which works to accelerate the transition to a clean, reliable, and efficient energy grid. This opportunity came after five years with the Illinois Commerce Commission and consulting for The Climate Registry and other clients.

In welcoming McCabe to RAP, the international nonprofit’s CEO and President Richard Sedano noted that McCabe’s deep and broad understanding of energy and environmental regulation was vital to growing RAP’s U.S. program.

She stayed for two years before deciding to accept Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s appointment to return as a commissioner on Illinois Commerce Commission. Set to join the ICC on Feb. 1, McCabe “brings a depth of experience to her role,” and better positions Illinois to meet challenges “and chart a new path forward,” Illinois Public Interest Research Group Abe Scarr said in a prepared statement.

Over the span of her career, McCabe sees her greatest impact in the last 10 to 15 years: implementing the formula rates for grid modernization while at the Illinois Commerce Commission, helping states quantify and advance their climate goals with The Climate Registry, and helping states advance grid modernization, performance-based regulation, and beneficial electrification of transportation and buildings at the Regulatory Assistance Project.

“It’s all things related to helping advance a cleaner, more efficient grid,” she said.

Achieving that cleaner, more efficient energy grid is complicated, requiring deep, enduring commitments and collaboration from municipalities, states, and federal agencies, she said. While acknowledging that meeting the Paris Climate Accords’ goals will be a tall order, she remains hopeful, finding optimism in the intentions of 25 governors, including Pritzker, who are part of the U.S. Climate Alliance and have strong climate goals.

“Ann’s quiet and reserved nature belies the fact that she is a tenacious leader and a resolute negotiator,” Tomford wrote. In the complex world of energy and the environment, McCabe has displayed unwavering determination throughout her career to implement sensible, effective, and economic solutions to environmental problems, Tomford added, while remaining “a steadfast champion for the protection of natural resources” for more than 25 years.

“I will always feel a debt of gratitude to Ann,” Tomford wrote, “both for the role she has played as a mentor to me personally, and for her phenomenal service to a cause that affects everyone on this planet today and many more generations ahead.”