Transformation through Leadership: Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) Symposium

Originally published in Scientific American, November 11, 2015.

They came in all ages—college, graduate school, early career, mid-career, mature career, semi-retired—many ethnicities and backgrounds, but mostly one gender. These were women gathering at MIT in Cambridge, MA, for the fourth annual Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) Symposium.

Caroline McGregor of the U.S. Department of Energy, which started this program in conjunction with the MIT Energy Initiative (better know as MITei—pronounced “mighty”), describes this initiative as the “recruitment, retention and advancement of women” working in clean energy. When Carla Peterman, a Commissioner at the California Public Utilities Commission, took the stage to receive her Government Leadership Award at last week’s Symposium, she remarked, “Women collaborate without even trying.” This symposium certainly felt that way.

Some years the theme for the C3E Symposium has been less clear; this year it crystallized: transformation. Women are leading the transformation of innovation, of climate solutions, of our world. Each and every woman at this conference is dedicated to transforming systems and lives through engagement and work in clean energy.

The importance of engaging women at all levels in the energy sector was emphasized by MITei’s Martha Broad, and Bob Armstrong with the latter saying that “…we need all hands on deck” to solve climate change.

In addition to group discussions of career advancement and speed networking, several panels took on difficult and complex challenges, such as the energy and water nexus or the transformation to a low carbon future. With 40% of water withdrawals in the U.S. going to thermal electric generation, the panelists discussed the need to arrive at creative solutions for managing the earth’s water sustainably. Challenges in developing countries around access to clean water and energy were highlighted, with discussions on innovative water desalination technologies and distributed solar technologies and delivery systems. One of the major differences seen with the panel discussions at C3E is that all of the speakers and moderators were women—something that is truly unique in the male-dominated energy sector.

Throughout the two days, several key themes inherent in transformation emerged.

It is okay to fail.

“Every girl should have the ability to build, fail, then build again—and in an unstructured environment”, said Grace Overlander, of Tesla Motors, who won the Business Leadership award for her work launching a dozen product lines in the automotive industry. This was a recurring refrain with speakers who assured the attendees that bad experiences are okay and that each career move can be a learning opportunity, spurring one to demand more from the next step. “Don’t stop because of one failure,” urged Leslie Labruto of the Clinton Foundation.

Women have the power to make change.

When a seasoned and accomplished professional was asked what advice she had, she said if she had to do it again, she would be Anya Cherneff, CEO of Empower Generation, who was awarded the International Leadership Award and has launched 15 businesses with 200 sales reps for solar lighting in remote communities in Nepal. “I have just started to recognize the power I have to make change,” reiterated Lisa Cagnolatti of Southern California Edison. Barbara Kates-Garnick of Tufts University was more practical in her approach. “Diversity is a business decision that benefits everybody,” she said. Her panel, which delved into the need for more granular tracking of women in clean energy, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), concluded that there is not enough data about women. “This lack of information makes women invisible,” continued Kates-Garnick. “What is not counted does not count.”

Every age can engage.

C3E Ambassadors are hand-picked female leaders who have reached maturity in their fields and who spend time together deciding who will win the prestigious awards. These women have internalized the need to “build the bench” of young women who will take their places and create even more leadership positions for women in clean energy. The award winners are mid-career women who have made extraordinary gains in various aspects of clean energy. These awards can mean an enormous amount to their careers and next steps toward leadership. Then there are graduate students who present posters of their projects, among which Symposium attendees choose one winner. Last year’s poster winner, Caroline Golin, has in the year since her award launched her own company, GreenLink, and gone on to obtain numerous contracts to perform solar analysis in the Southeast and throughout the nation. A group of younger women, undergraduates in STEM programs, have the chance to present three-minute “lightning” presentations of their research. Many more women attend as invitees of each of these groups of professionals, sowing the seeds of leadership and enthusiasm to make an impact in clean energy. With live webcast, the hope is to reach many more women who are unable to attend in person.

It is up to us to find transformative solutions.

Rebecca Pearl-Martinez, Head of the Renewable Equity Project, Center for International Environment and Resource Policy (CIERP), Fletcher School at Tufts University, observed that “gender diversity could be the next carbon wedge, propelling both clean energy technologies and economic growth.” Others remarked that we can empower women to power the world. People want more than just a solar light—want entire electricity lifestyle. Erica Mackey, the Founder and CEO of Off-Grid Electric, who was awarded the Entrepreneurial Leadership Award, for her ground breaking work to deliver state-of-the-art solar products in sub-Saharan Africa, stated that “they are focused on making solar affordable to everyone—household by household.” Melanie Kenderdine, the founder of the MITiE and now a close advisor to DOE Secretary Ernie Moniz and head of the Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis, delivered a keynote address with a tutorial on where our energy resource mix is now, what policies are needed, and how we need to get more serious about funding solutions to climate change. Others agreed that sustained policies help technologies make transformation possible. While there are hopeful signs of this transformation, the opportunity for change is immediate but implementation can feel painfully slow.

Next year will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the C3E Symposium and the leadership awards. Now the task will be to ensure that all women—not just those who are lucky enough to attend the conference—are empowered to lead the clean energy transformation. Kenderdine observed that as she ages, she feels that it is ever more important to help younger women coming along. This C3E Ambassador couldn’t agree more.

Utility of the Future: or What to Think When Everyone Says Your World is Turning Upside Down

[Originally published in Energy Biz]

As the red-eye jet made its way toward the airport with dawn breaking, street lights still on and house lights coming on, I watched first the farms with long roads, then the small clusters of towns, then the vast suburban outreach of Washington, DC. I had been thinking a lot about the evolution of the electric grid. From above, one could see how electricity, whether urban or rural, connected all of these people and businesses into one enormous system, sometimes dense and sometimes sparse, but always on. Now the next generation of innovation is poised to change the way we think about and use this system.

Many of these innovations are more than just information flow—they are real energy resources like solar and energy storage, demand response, and energy efficiency—that affect both the operations and business of utilities. At a recent conference in Hawaii—a state that has been undergoing such tremendous and real-time alterations to their grid that I have likened it to changing the tires while the car is moving—state regulatory Commissioner Lorraine Akiba said, “The integrated grid of the future is one that requires strategic actions to realize the full value of central power and distributed energy resources.” [1]

Akiba touches the key here to the future of our utility model: integration. The term came up again at a recent energy storage conference in California when a utility representative said, “Our job is not to simply connect, but to integrate.” The integration will need to be both physical—which has always been the operating premise—but also digital. Moreover, this integration does not need to rely on a centralized system of power generation plants connected by long transmission lines, but rather can allow for disaggregation of flexible and distributed resources.

One case to watch is the New York REV proceeding[2] where utilities—already decoupled from generation—are being asked to become consumer-service platform providers. As the commission Chair Audrey Zibelman has said, “By fundamentally restructuring the way utilities and energy companies sell electricity, New York can maximize the utilization of resources, and reduce the need for new infrastructure through expanded demand management, energy efficiency, renewable energy, distributed generation, and energy storage programs.”[3] The key here will be whether the utilities will be able to perform all these services, operate their system, and remain cost-competitive at the same time.

Utilities that see this integration with disrupters as a business opportunity stand to benefit. As in the case of New York, utilities could start thinking of themselves as service providers or, at least, integrators. What the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has done on the bulk-power side by allowing compensation for characteristics and services provided to the transmission side of the system, state regulators could do on the distribution grid by allowing compensation for a wider range of values.

Another potential construct–proposed in the REV proceeding with Jon Wellinghoff, former Chairman of the FERC and Jeff Cramer, one of my business partners—would be for distribution utilities to adopt what FERC put into place when it issued Orders 888 and 2000[4], enabling the creation of competitive wholesale markets and Independent System Operators. This would be a comparable system on the distribution side, or Independent Distribution System Operator (IDSO).[5] The IDSO would enable distributed energy resource integration, greater consumer choice and participation, and allow for a more efficient and transactive energy framework.

Yet another option might be that utilities and others could be compensated for increased efficiency, for decreased energy intensity, and for lower-carbon resources (especially as the EPA Clean Power Plan is finalized and states begin implementation). State RPSs already give utilities credit for renewables, and in decoupled constructs, utilities are given credit for efficiency programs. What could be new is a more holistic set of metrics—going beyond but not totally dissimilar from the Value of Solar model.[6] That new set of metrics could: take into consideration what we want out of our system; put rules in place to compensate for those services; incentivize entities to provide those services; and then allow all participants to compete to provide services. Utilities could be winners in that model, but so could consumers and innovators.

It would be helpful to have a national policy that sets goals and objectives for our electric grid that could be the basis for a new compensation model. But states can set their own policies, as California has, that drive innovation in resources that can help meet state goals. The impetus does not need to be limited to state leadership, either. Vision can come from utilities and innovators collaborating to offer a set of services that are presented to commissions and allow them to see (and compensate) myriad benefits of that integration.

To keep those lights on that dot the landscape, whether in clusters or singly, utilities can join forces with “disrupters” to ensure that everyone benefits from a cleaner and more efficient system. They key is to move beyond simple connection to integration.

How Hard Can It Be? Willing to Take Risks Through Career Choices

Originally featured on blog.

Ten or even five-year career goals have always seemed foreign to me. I graduated from college with a creative writing degree–writing and illustrating children’s books had been my dream–and then prolonged the work search by getting another degree in French culture and civilization from the Sorbonne (who wouldn’t want to live in Paris?). The first job I landed once I moved to Washington, DC, was serving subpoenas for a law firm. Even back then $6 an hour was not a living wage and I found myself making my own suits and not particularly liking lawyers. What to do next? I had worked for the electric utility during college as a technical writer and applied to be an innocuous sounding “service representative”. I would be in a three-year program with a test every six months and would be required to take night classes in engineering. How hard could it be?

Before the end of the three-year program, I was designing transformer and switch vaults with French drains (I knew French!) and sixteen way duct banks. I engineered circuit conversions. I wore a hard hat and carried an equipment bag to stake out projects that I had drafted onto construction blueprints (I could draw!). I moved on to commercial marketing, conducting energy audits and convincing building owners to install ice storage systems. Here I was for nearly a decade honing skills I never thought I had and having fun in the process.

The time had its challenges, such as when my boss called a staff meeting to state publicly that he hoped my pregnancy would not prevent us from making our goals. During my second pregnancy, the head of HR told me she thought it would be better for me to take the path of her sister who had kids and stay home. This was just before Clinton passed the Family and Medical Leave Act; I had just six weeks off for each child. I also really wanted to work more in clean energy and started looking around for opportunities. I found a memo in a colleague’s in-basket from a leader at a Department of Energy program that sounded interesting. I gave him a call.

This gentleman became my mentor, hiring me to run several programs through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. To be employed by the lab I had to present before a team of a dozen scientists. I was not a scientist but I did know something about creative utility rates I could tell them. Hey, how hard could it be? I was at NREL for almost a decade as well, getting my Certified Energy Manager license, starting a federal energy audit program and then a water efficiency program. A colleague of mine at the lab was leaving and the position of Manager of Government Relations would be open. I had never worked with Congress and the lab needed someone to translate the scientific programs into plain language (I could write!). That couldn’t possibly be as hard as engineering.

This was really the way my career worked. I would see an opportunity, decide that I had the skills to do it (or could get the skills if I worked hard enough), dive in, and try to have fun along the way. Not that I think I know everything, but that I have the capacity to learn. Other opportunities came my way that I took—working for a private equity firm on policy (while sourcing investments and doing technical due diligence), running a large and growing trade association, starting a clean energy and innovation policy company with several other folks. Not everything was easy. I was fired a couple of times and had to scramble for new work and heal emotionally. I have certainly had moments of self-doubt but never once thought anything was just too hard. If I were to describe what has kept me going through these thirty years working in clean energy it would be that very attitude: how hard can it really be?


Winding Down to Rev Back Up

As I sit at my kitchen counter listening to the needles drop off our fading Christmas tree like sleet landing on window panes, I wonder when Congress stopped absorbing water and began accepting the inability to thrive. It all still looks presentable, but with little productive outcome. So what’s a clean energy advocate to do? Perhaps stop lobbying Congress altogether and focus instead on business-to-agency and business-to-business interactions?

Perhaps there are enough laws and we need to focus instead on implementing what we already have on the books. In a way, that exercise makes us dig deep into our statutes to find out what we can get done without change. Take the EPA, for example. The agency will essentially be writing our climate legislation and calling upon clean energy innovation for solutions to our most pressing environmental issue. And the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, my personal favorite. The FERC, along with other regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Communications Commission, can open up markets by interpreting statute and promulgating rules that allow new technology participation. The Small Business Administration can assist burgeoning industries in navigating and interpreting existing policy. Even the Internal Revenue Service can make rulings based on statute that open the doors of tax policy for clean technologies.

Because DC is the home to hundreds of trade associations, ensuring that entrepreneurs are connected to the most appropriate and helpful trade groups can be enormously beneficial. Introducing foundling endeavors to larger companies and executives who can serve as mentors and guides along the way to development and, eventually, IPO. Forming coalitions of start-ups that can create their own nucleus of power with the philosophy that rising tides help all boats.

Thing is, we still need Congress to step in from time to time. We need laws clarified and updated. We need provisions extended and renewed to prevent new industries from collapsing. We need foundational policy for new enterprises that never existed previously and have no guidelines for operation. We need affirmation that our publicly elected officials who represent constituents desperate for jobs and economic growth, are engaged and learning and paying attention to what is going on in front of their eyes and in their hometowns. We do need Congress to act on clean energy. Not for everything that happens, but in really important ways that can help our national competitiveness through local growth.

So I will continue to work with Congress–explaining complex technologies in terms that a layperson can understand; introducing them to their own voters who are also clean energy entrepreneurs; demonstrating that federal programs can have positive and direct consequences on our economy and environment; and convincing them that taking a stand on clean energy is more of a patriotic value than a political statement.

In 2014, then, you may see me walking the halls of the GSA or the Pentagon, Rayburn or Dirksen. Happy New Year!

Energy Storage: the industry’s roller coaster week of tragedy and victory

This week the energy storage industry received two polar opposite pieces of news. The first was the tragic loss of Brad Roberts--decades long volunteer Executive Director of the Electricity Storage Association who managed to hold an incredibly demanding position at S&C Electric, represent the national trade association, and embody one of the industry’s most ardent missionary and champion. Brad’s lovely wife Betty was always at Brad’s side at the energy storage conferences that I can only imagine would be less than exciting for a non-aficionado. I admired Brad for his tenacity, learned from his experience, and was fond of him as a person. I will miss him terribly.

While many of us were professionally and personally reeling from this news, the California Public Utility Commission unanimously approved a target of 1.3 gigawatts for advanced energy storage. Wow. Unanimous approval. 1.3 gigawatts—without pumped hydro. I wish Brad could have seen this. He, in fact, laid so much of the groundwork for this to occur.

The energy storage industry is just getting started, too. There are currently over 300 megawatts of advanced energy storage on line with many hundreds more in the queue. Large developers like AES Energy Storage, Duke and NextEra are taking bullish positions on storage and finding ways to prove out their value to grid operations. At the moment, only frequency regulation is compensated in the organized markets, but I envision frequency response, other ancillary services and capacity to gain steam for valuation by grid operators. With states like California taking the lead closely followed by Texas, New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and others, energy storage should start getting included on the “menu” of resource options that can help meet our need for a more resilient, efficient and cleaner grid.

So in raising a glass in celebration for the California decision, cheers to you, Brad.

Race to the Top: Who’s stuck at the bottom?

As a nation, we don’t like to admit that that we pick winners and losers. But we do—and, in most cases, for good reason. Some technologies or programs have a greater probability of success. Sometimes our national priorities change. Sometimes technology breakthroughs or new information comes to light that shift the focus.

If we believe the U.S. needs to significantly increase our investment in clean energy innovation and move the nation to a cleaner, more sustainable, and more prosperous future, I think we need some new thinking.

Read more of this post

Rebuild For the Next Sandy

Check out this blog on AOL Energy, too!

After hurricane Sandy ravaged the Atlantic shoreline, my 88-year-old mother-in-law sat in her New Jersey home, unwilling to leave her things, for over a week with no electricity. Another friend of mine spent that same week waiting in gas lines to refill a generator and keep his brother’s small business going. These two examples don’t even include the truly unfortunate folks who completely lost their homes and businesses; they just lost their electric power.

There has been quite a bit of buzz about whether the “smart grid” and associated technologies and applications actually helped in the Sandy recovery efforts. They may have but I think we can do better. Read more of this post


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