History of the Conn Center
On April 15th, 2008, the Kentucky General Assembly passed House Bill 2, which created the Center for Renewable Energy Research and Environmental Stewardship (CRERES) (a Powerpoint, .ppt presentation). This Center is attached to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet for administrative purposes [now the Department of Energy Development and Independence (DEDI)]. As described in KRS 152.713(a PDF file), the purpose of CRERES, in part, is to promote partnerships among Kentucky's post-secondary education institutions, private industries, and non-profit organization to actively pursue federal research and development resources that are dedicated to renewable energy. The statute also sets forth that the governor shall appoint a board to carry out the function of CRERES and that the secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet shall serve as the chair of the board until the Center is established and operational. In addition, the Energy and Environment Cabinet (EEC) and UofL wanted to work together to carry out the intent of House Bill 2 and the statutory mandates created by the legislation.
UofL as a Partner
On January 26th, 2009, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear announced that the state would enter into a memorandum of understanding (a PDF file) with UofL to operate Kentucky's CRERES, which was executed on September 14th, 2009. The Governor and UofL President James Ramsey also announced that the largest private donation to UofL or any public Kentucky university would support the center's work. UofL engineering and business alumnus Henry "Hank" Conn and his wife, Rebecca, pledged more than $20 million to the J.B. Speed School of Engineering for that purpose. The center at UofL was thereafter named the "Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research" in their honor (1,2). While the Conn Center conducts research at UofL, CRERES remains the state mechanism for addressing renewable energy and environmental stewardship issues.
Hank & Rebecca Conn
Hank Conn, who was the 2009 UofL Alumnus of the Year, is a senior executive advisor for corporations worldwide and guides chief executive officers and executive teams in leading their organizations through complex changes. He is the former vice president of the global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, Inc. He and Rebecca have been married for 48 years and are both Louisville natives who live in Atlanta. Mr. Conn received his bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from the Speed School in 1964 and 1972, respectively, and his MBA from the UofL College of Business in 1969. He was the 2002 Alumni Fellow for the Speed School of Engineering and also received a Distinguished Alumnus award from the Speed School in 2006. Mr. Conn co-authored "Maximum Performance Management," a best-selling guide to innovative management and compensation practices and is currently writing a book on global business strategies needed for the new century (2,3).
Mr. Conn's interest in alternative energy goes back decades. His mark in business came as a management consultant with energy consultation being one of his areas of expertise. He has worked with integrated oil companies and assessed portable nuclear power and other forms of alternative energy. In his early working years, his first position was as a process engineer at Louisville's Assembly Plant, which was also where he co-oped during his days at Speed School. Four years later, he was promoted to facilities engineering supervisor and oversaw construction of Ford's Heavy Truck Assembly Plant in Louisville. From there, he took top executive positions at Allis-Chalmers Corp., Siemens-Allis Inc., and TRW Inc. He has served as present/CEO and partner with ex-NFL great Fran Tarkenton of Tarkenton, Conn & Co. before his vice presidency at A.T. Kearney. Mr. Conn is also a member of the Speed School's Industrial Board of Advisors (4).
When it comes to renewable energy, Hank believes that timing is everything. Mr. Conn remains deeply concerned about the country's reliance on foreign oil, among other resources. He has predicted gas prices could surpass 2008's $4 per gallon by rising to $6 per gallon with five years (~2015). With that climate and President Obama making energy a cornerstone of his administration as a backdrop, Conn came to believe that there would be no better time than now to leave his legacy. "Becky and I are getting to the age now (he's 68, she's not) when we'd like to put it all together and make something matter," he says. "We are convinced that renewables are the future. If we can bring down the cost per kilowatt with new waves of technology, then we can finally make it competitive." Conn is certain that the work of the Conn Center will be relevant, timely, and sustainable. "The key question is how can we put people in place to do energy research regardless of what's happening in the marketplace," he says. "We want to be in the forefront of this research" (4).
Putting Together the Pieces for Success
While attending the Ryder Cup in 2008 at Valhalla Golf Club, the Conns were introduced to State Representative Rocky Adkins, Kentucky House Floor Majority Leader and a passionate advocate of renewable energy options such as wind and solar. It was Adkins who shepherded energy efficiency legislation through the Kentucky General Assembly, legislation that serves as a model for the Council on State Governments. Mr. and Mrs. Conn had been considering awarding a gift that would fund research on evolving energy sources, but had not made a final decision. Says Hank of the encounter, "Rocky's a passionate guy when it comes to renewable energy. When he speaks, it is like listening to a sermon. Until then, I didn't know of the state's deep commitment to energy alternatives. It made me think that we can really do this in Kentucky" (4).
During a visit to UofL in November 2008, Conn toured the J.B. Speed School of Engineering. Len Peters, the Kentucky Secretary of the EEC, was with him. Peters' cabinet was responsible for setting up a research center for renewable energy and he impressed Conn with his keen insight into all things energy. "Len had a good knowledge and technical expertise in various energy sources," Conn says. "We had a good discussion on portable nuclear, renewables, on everything energy. It was an awakening for me." Within two months, the Conns were standing next to Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and UofL President Jim Ramsey in Frankfort making the announcement that caused a stir throughout the state. "Hank is very committed to the Speed School," observes Rebecca Conn, "and it's our great privilege to be part of this new center for renewable energy and environmental stewardship" (4).
"We were looking for one cause to significantly support in an effort to make the needle move, to really make a difference," says Hank. "The vision of the Conn Center at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering, and for a cause that I have advocated in all my recent writings, speeches, and a book in process, was so compelling that we bought in full-bore," he says, adding, "Obviously, the fact that the Speed School was the genesis for all our success in this world didn't hurt either." The Conn's vision for the center is to establish a place where science and research can take place regardless of whether there are markets yet for such technologies. Mr. Conn says, "Otherwise, when gas is $6 a gallon in five years, everybody will stand around and say 'Now what will we do?'" In challenging Kentucky's research and energy industry communities, he questions, "Why can't we manufacture solar panels that are - from a scientific and engineering standpoint - better than anybody else's? What about wind machines? General Electric is probably the leader right now and they have a presence in Louisville. Why can't we do a lot of things right here?!" (1,2).
Kentucky State Rep. Rocky Adkins states, "As the primary sponsor of legislation that created the center, I am incredibly pleased to have UofL take the lead on research that will launch Kentucky to the national forefront of renewable energy exploration and environmental stewardship. The General Assembly passed comprehensive policies that made Kentucky ready to meet the Conn's vision. I have no doubt that UofL will deliver on the expectations of the governor, the General Assembly, and the Conns for innovation and job creation to benefit every Kentuckian" (1).
"Our commitment to pioneering research that leads the US to energy independence is equal to our quest to find the answers to cancer at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center, " UofL President Jim Ramsey says. "We have attracted researchers who have invented the vaccine for cervical cancer and have 20-plus cancer-curing drugs in the development pipeline. We'll put our shoulders to the task of providing clean, affordable energy for the future in the same innovative fashion" (1).
Speed School Dean Mickey Wilhelm remarks, "UofL has the expertise to address the use of wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass resources, energy storage, and the logistics and distribution challenges for new energy sources." He adds, "Hank and Becky had already endowed a graduate fellowship, and I knew they were thinking of doing more." Dr. Wilhelm was privy to the couple's desire to make a significant financial infusion, but was taken aback at the amount they pledged. "Hank likes to call it his 'big idea,'" Wilhelm says. "He wants to do something that has a lasting impact on society, something in which he could be involved" (1,4).
Conn was impressed with how so many decision makers and political figures from all parts of the political spectrum came together to make the new center happen at UofL. "People like Senator David Williams (president of the Kentucky State Senate), Greg Stumbo (speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives), State Senator Robert Stivers, Larry Clark (Speaker Pro Tempore of the Kentucky House), Governor Beshear, and so many others," he says. Conn even traveled with university and state officials to Washington, D.C. to get the support of US Senator Mitch McConnell and US Congressman John Yarmuth. "It was great to see everybody get behind this," Conn says (4).
(1) Beshear taps UofL to take the lead on renewable energy research; Largest private gift to the university will support the effort. By Kevin Rayburn, January 26, 2009.
(2) The Conns believe in 'green': Largest gift in UofL history supports energy research.
(3) Oh what a night! Conn honored at Alumni Fellows dinner. October 8, 2009.
(4) Features: Hank & Rebecca Conn. By Ron Cooper, UofL Magazine, Fall 2009.
(5) Memorandum of understanding between the Commonwealth of Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and the University of Louisville: Center for Renewable Energy Research and Environmental Stewardship. September 14, 2009.(a PDF file)