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.

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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!

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.

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Energy Storage Alive and Well: A123 Not Dead

Check this blog out on AOL Energy!

To borrow a phrase from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, we are not dead yet. The media has picked up on the A123 Systems Chapter 11 filing and has extrapolated it to mean that somehow energy storage is another failed Department of Energy (DOE) technology. In fact, the industry feels fine. Read more of this post

Clean energy policy: reducing climate change without the politics

This blog—and my career, frankly – has carefully steered clear of politically sensitive issues and focused instead on advocating for smart public policy. But having lived through summer after summer in Washington, D.C., with temperatures continuously climbing above 100 degrees and increasingly violent storms (with scientists echoing that things seem to be progressing more quickly then once thought), I finally am compelled to comment on the topic of climate change.

Given these circumstances, it seems that at long last, a real conversation about climate change is bound to happen. I actually think climate change policy does not have to be mired in politics, especially when the skepticism is concentrated in a small part of the political spectrum in Washington, D.C.

In 2010, I participated as part of a trade delegation to COP-15 in Copenhagen. I was then heading up the GridWise Alliance, and attended the climate negotiations to meet with other business leaders and observe the proceedings. I came away with two distinct impressions.

The first was that multi-national corporations clearly saw climate change as a business bonanza; that through developing solutions to mitigate climate change, they would profit.

The second was that many of the country delegations participating in the negotiations were there because the lives of their citizens were threatened by environmental destruction caused by climate change. They had travelled to dark, cold, expensive Denmark in December, in some cases bringing their own food to be able to afford the trip. These were their countries’ negotiators; top envoys and leaders desperate to have others listen to them and recognize the dire results that climate change had delivered to their homes. It seemed to me then that saving these countries from imminent danger—and creating a business case in so doing—were not mutually exclusive.

More savvy attendees managed their expectations. Hopes were high but despite efforts from the very highest levels, including the President, a grand deal did not emerge from those talks.  Back in the states, cap and trade legislation, which passed the House, failed in the Senate.  New legislation to address climate change has not been discussed seriously since, and the topic has become taboo in many political circles.

I think the pendulum is due to swing back.

We continue to hear reports that communities in Alaska that have existed for centuries are having to relocate because of reduced hunting and fishing grounds caused by climate change. Increased extreme temperatures and dramatic weather events have continued to wreak havoc in nearly every corner of the nation. Not a single person or someone they know has remained untouched. Whether these events can be directly attributed to climate change is still a point of discussion, but climate scientists are only more convinced that it is here and now.

Sooner or later, the federal debate on climate change will rekindle and, while legislation may look different from the Waxman-Markey bill of 2010, it will contain key elements that can drive a low-carbon energy future. State and local governments are already showing leadership by enacting climate policies; California is embarking on a cap and trade program, for example. Utilities are investing in technologies like smart grid and energy storage that can maximize the use of renewables and make fossil fuels more efficient. Technology development and deployment is continuing to create new wealth and jobs, despite the inaction in Congress.

And once that movement in Congress thaws, we can be in a position to help ourselves in so many ways. By devising an energy policy that asks—and strives to answer—the question “what do we want our country to look like in 50 years?” we can create incentives and groom markets for clean technologies, processes and applications that could significantly abate the threat of climate change. If we can articulate that vision and lay the policy foundation, investors will flock. Clean tech investment is still robust; private equity companies know there is money to be made. With a market that rewards reduced carbon emissions, investment—and profit—will only increase.

So, while the current rhetoric is often divisive and the hope of legislative action of any type seems bleak, we need to remain tuned in to the emerging opportunities for clean energy and innovation public policy.  Even in the unlikely scenario that the climate was to instantly stabilize, there is no risk (and potentially enormous benefits) to forging ahead on clean technologies.

New Venture in Energy and Innovation

The blogger at Cleangridview and the entire team here at QGA Public Affairs today announced the creation of 38 North Solutions LLC, to launch in July 2012, which will focus on government relations, strategic communications, and public policy advocacy.

The group, previously part of QGA Public Affairs, will maintain a strategic partnership with QGA Chairman Jack Quinn and President John Feehery.

With decades of experience working in a range of fields – including the federal government, politics, utility, finance, and clean energy sectors – the team has been working together over the past two years to serve clients in the clean technology and innovation space. They have developed a robust practice by combining technology and business acumen with a keen understanding of Washington, D.C., policy and politics, resulting in significant legislative and strategic gains for clients.

“We are thrilled to launch 38 North Solutions – the shared latitude of Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay area – which represents our unique ability to connect public policy to one of the leading hubs of innovation,” said Von Bargen, former Chief of Staff to Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and a trusted policy advisor among Silicon Valley’s venture capital and entrepreneurial community.

“I encouraged Patrick and this exceptional team to form their own enterprise and I am greatly excited at the opportunities we will have to continue to collaborate in the clean tech space while enabling QGA to sharpen its focus on the traditional areas of our practice. This is a natural evolution for Patrick and his team as they delve deeper into the energy and innovation space. I look forward to our strategic partnership as 38 North establishes itself as the gold standard in this space,” said Quinn.

“We take a unique approach to our work by forming a partnership with our clients and building on their innovative strengths, to tell their story in a way that is understandable, comprehensive, and compelling to decision-makers,” said Hamilton, a current director at QGA Public Affairs, former President of the GridWise Alliance, and experienced technologist in the utility and renewable energy sectors.

Allyson Groff and Jeff Cramer of QGA Public Affairs will also serve as founding partners in the new venture. Groff is an experienced writer and public affairs consultant and former communications director and spokesperson for the House Natural Resources Committee. Cramer is a former clean energy and innovation industry analyst, and experienced political organizer on the local, state, and federal levels.

“I look forward to continuing to work closely with the team at 38 North as they start this new chapter. I am confident that their deep knowledge of the issues, entrepreneurial work ethic, and ability to work with Members and offices on both sides of the aisle will allow them to continue their success in this space,” said Feehery.

The team currently serves a variety of clean energy companies and trade associations from around the globe in the wind, solar, energy storage, recycling, bio-based chemical, electric vehicle, venture capital, and green building sectors.

Sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy: Energy Storage Getting Some Light

Check out this blog at IDC Energy Insights as well!

A Sunshine Memo was issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on Thursday, October 13, moments after I met with Commissioner Norris and Chairman Wellinghoff with the Electricity Storage Association Advocacy Council. This memo listed a multitude of possible final rulemakings, one of which will set a new course for the energy storage industry. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Frequency Regulation Compensation may sound esoteric and niche-y but this rule will provide the opening the energy storage industry needs to begin its “game changing” role on the grid that has been touted for years. It looks as if, after subsequent meetings with Commissioners Moeller and LaFleur (Commissioner Spitzer will be leaving the agency shortly), there will be unanimous support from all Commissioners on the final rule.

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