Dan Reicher
Photo by Colin Clark

Dan Reicher’s career is something of a “how to” for aspiring environmental lawyers. He has spent 25 years immersed in energy and environmental issues, exploring policy, finance, law, and technology. He has broad government and policy experience, including serving in the Clinton administration at the Department of Energy (DOE) as assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy and as a member of President Obama’s transition team, where he focused on the energy portions of the stimulus package and advised the Obama campaign on energy and climate issues. In the private sector, he was president and co-founder of New Energy Capital Corp., a private equity firm established to invest in clean energy projects, and executive vice president of Northern Power Systems, one of the nation’s oldest renewable energy companies. Prior to taking up his positions at Stanford earlier this year, he was director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google. Reicher, JD ’83, brings this array of expertise to Stanford as professor of the practice of law, lecturer at the Graduate School of Business, and executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.

But his passion for the environment goes back much further than 25 years.

Reicher was just 7 years old when he first realized the difference one individual could make. An enthusiastic Cub Scout in his hometown of Syracuse, New York, he was reading a camping catalog to begin equipping himself for his first Scout trip when he noticed that the company was selling a winter coat with a hood trimmed in wolverine fur. Earlier that same day he had learned at school that the wolverine was an endangered species. The budding environmentalist and clean energy advocate took umbrage. His mother, a teacher, suggested that he write a letter to the company explaining what he’d learned in school. Reicher did and to his delight he received a reply just one week later: The company would no longer sell jackets with wolverine fur hoods.

“I was surprised that I could make a difference, and so quickly. It was a pivotal moment for a young kid,” says Reicher.

It was the 1960s and change was in the air. These were the heady early days of the “conservation” movement, and the young Reicher wanted to be a part of it. His parents supported his interest and sent him to conservation camp where he was taught about “things green.” And in 1970 he helped organize his junior high school’s participation in the first Earth Day. He chose Dartmouth for his undergraduate studies because of its strong sciences (he was premed) and for its “big green” commitment to the environment. “At that time I was interested in a career at the intersection of public health and environment—how the two interact,” he says.

But just months before his graduation from Dartmouth in the spring of 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident happened—and changed Reicher’s course. President Jimmy Carter appointed a special commission to investigate the accident and asked Dartmouth’s president, John G. Kemeny (one of Albert Einstein’s last research assistants), to head it. Reicher was determined to work with the commission.

“When I couldn’t get an appointment with Kemeny, who was very busy, I stood in his parking space on campus and waited for him—hoping I could talk to him. But he just drove off,” says Reicher, smiling. Undeterred, he flew down to Washington, D.C. The hearings hadn’t started so he went to the office of the newly formed commission.

“The staffers were very nice. But they didn’t have a job for me. I said I’d do the Xeroxing, and they said okay. So I had my first job after college—as the copy guy,” he says.

Reicher’s career at the copy machine didn’t last long though. “Three weeks in, my eyes were blurry,” he says. “But by then the legal department was getting going. I stuck my head in the office of the new general counsel and asked if I could help.” Reicher was quickly relieved of copy duties and elevated to paralegal.

And so the environmentalist turned premed student caught the legal bug.

“I was working with some of the most brilliant and passionate environmental and energy lawyers of our time. It really was an extraordinary experience,” says Reicher. “And I quickly saw how important policy work is. And how much better suited I was to law than medicine.”

He spent six months with the Three Mile Island commission, helping the legal team sift through mountains of documents gathered for the investigation and then six months with the Department of Justice’s hazardous waste section working on the path-breaking Love Canal toxic waste case. And then it was off to Stanford Law School, followed by a clerkship for a federal district court judge in Boston and a stint in the Massachusetts attorney general’s office where he got involved in the controversy over the Seabrook nuclear power plant. Then, just a few years out of law school, he was offered a position with the Natural Resources Defense Council in D.C.—an environmental lawyer’s dream job.

“That was my first experience as a real lawyer. It was such an exciting time and place to start out,” he says.

One of his first cases had to do with the government’s plans to dispose of nuclear waste underground, including near populated areas in the Northeast. To prepare, Reicher dug into West’s Environmental Law Statutes, a dense tome. He read the Safe Drinking Water Act and found a novel angle that he decided to use as the basis for his objection. He argued the case before the First Circuit. He won—and the Environmental Protection Agency had to rewrite its standards for nuclear waste disposal. “I think that was my most creative moment as a lawyer. And an exciting win,” he says.

Now back at Stanford, Reicher has barely stopped running since he arrived on campus last winter. He is teaching Clean Tech: Business Fundamentals and Public Policy with Stefan J. Reichelstein from the GSB this fall. He has testified several times in Congress on critical energy legislation. And the Steyer-Taylor Center ramps up its work at a time of huge uncertainty about the future of clean energy, made all the more so by recent controversy around the federal loan guarantee provided to Solyndra, a Silicon Valley solar energy company.

“The twin realities of a recession and intensifying global competition make it crucial that, as the U.S. pursues a clean-energy future, it does so in the most economically efficient way,” says Reicher. “The center has a number of initiatives under way to help shape that economically smart path.” Among them: Improving the Commercialization of Clean Energy Technology, Advancing U.S.-China Collaboration in Clean Energy, and The U.S. Military: A Powerful New Partner in Clean Energy—the titles as ambitious as the goals. Recently, Reicher brought Jeffrey Ball, The Wall Street Journal’s environment editor and a veteran energy and environment reporter for the paper, into the center as a scholar-in-residence. And they’ve just gotten started.

“The environmental, economic, and security opportunities in clean energy are extremely large but hugely complicated. If we are to secure these opportunities, we must greatly expand our work—and our successes—at the intersection of policy and finance,” says Reicher.

Read more about Reicher and the Center.