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.