A Series Celebrating 20 Years of Environmental Finance
In 2019, the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill celebrates its 20th anniversary. This milestone recognizes 20 years of excellence and even more dynamic, talented people. Throughout 2019, the EFC will publish 20 stories of exceptional student employees, projects, and impacts resulting in the inspiration that embodies who we are today and compels us to continue going further. Stories will be published biweekly at efc20.web.unc.edu.
The first feature in our series: Mary Tiger, UNC MPA ’09 alumnus and Sustainability Manager at the Orange Water and Sewer Authority:
Mary Tiger serves as the Sustainability Manager at the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA). She is a 2009 graduate of the UNC Master of Public Administration program, and worked as an EFC research assistant during her time as an MPA student from 2007 to 2009. Before starting the MPA program, Mary worked as a utility conservation coordinator for a Colorado water, wastewater, and power utility.
The Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was one of the biggest attractants to the UNC Master of Public Administration program for ’09 MPA alumnus Mary Tiger.
“The EFC was one of the reasons I came to UNC for my graduate program,” Mary said. “The UNC MPA program at that time didn’t have much of a specific focus on the environment, so being an EFC research assistant was an opportunity that really drove my decision to come to UNC.”
When Mary began working as an MPA student at the EFC in 2007, she started with communications tasks and responsibilities, like management of the EFC website. With an undergraduate degree in environmental journalism from UNC-Asheville and several years of communications in the utility industry under her belt, the transition into this role was smooth. Throughout her first year at the EFC, Mary also worked on the North Carolina Funders’ Table as well as the North Carolina Water and Wastewater Rates Survey.
The following summer, Mary began her internship with Charlotte Water, which was in the midst of dealing with the 2007-2008 drought. One of the things she was looking at for Charlotte Water was a drought surcharge, and her interest was piqued. That summer, Mary would spend four days a week in Charlotte and the last in Chapel Hill, where she would brainstorm on the subject with EFC Director Jeff Hughes and Senior Project Director Shadi Eskaf.
“It was great to be in Charlotte four days a week in meetings and discussions about drought surcharges and then come to the EFC on Fridays and pick Jeff and Shadi’s brain about what we could do,” Mary said. “So it was great to have my foot in the door at both the utility and the EFC.”
The result was the subject of Mary’s master’s research thesis, which she carried out the following year with the EFC: “Gauging the Understanding and Support of a Drought Surcharge in Mecklenburg County”.
Mary’s goal was to find out whether or not customers would be okay with a drought surcharge if they knew the purpose of it. Insight from this research could also help utilities in their consideration, development, and communication about drought surcharges in their own communities.
“I was really interested in if people would be okay with this,” she said. “Was it something people could get behind?”
To find out, Mary and the EFC organized four focus groups of Charlotte Water customers. The EFC used Charlotte Water’s utility billing data to organize these focus groups based on similar water use and consumption.
The study found that once customers understood Charlotte Water is not operating for profit, and that conservation undercuts operating expenses, support for drought surcharges was more probable.
“Once they understood that the utility’s expenses don’t go down when water use goes down and saw the surcharge as a means to promote conservation during a drought, we saw increased support,” Mary said.
This project led Mary to think more about the work the EFC could do on rate structure design, and how rates can be used to better promote conservation while ensuring the financial sustainability of a utility. Such interest and work would prove valuable after she graduated from the MPA program in 2009 and started full time as a project manager at the EFC.
Mary would stay at the EFC for six more years, often using the themes from her student research in the work she continued to do as an EFC employee. She was later promoted to senior project manager, eventually becoming chief operating officer in 2011 before leaving the EFC to become the sustainability manager at OWASA in 2015.
Today, Mary manages several OWASA projects that still relate to EFC work, including the utility’s affordability outreach program, energy management program, and advanced metering infrastructure work.
Mary said she continues to value her connection to the EFC, both personally and professionally.
“I look forward to the blog posts that come out, the work the EFC does, calling Shadi about data,” she said. “I continue to value that relationship with the EFC, and it is really valuable to me when doing my job today.”
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