On an unseasonably cold mid-November day in College Station, Texas, Valerie Karplus took the stage at the eighth annual U.S. Clean Energy Education and Empowerment Women in Clean Energy Symposium and Awards to offer two main drivers that motivate her work: a commitment to scholarship that crosses disciplinary boundaries; and the great joy she takes in all of her students’ successes.
“I see my job as helping students to speak more languages than just technology alone, and to realize that the clean energy transition is very much about human decisions and the structures and understanding—spoken and unspoken—that shape them,” said Karplus, an assistant professor of global economics and management in the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Karplus is among this year’s C3E awardees—nine women who have demonstrated leadership and high achievement in the field of clean energy. She received the Education award in recognition of her outstanding accomplishments as a professor and mentor. Karplus credits her Texas public school teachers with imparting the skills and philosophy that she now implements in her own research and teaching at MIT. “An interdisciplinary approach deeply respects the expertise within disciplines and endeavors to translate insights across boundaries, and I believe this is the same kind of approach that one needs to advance the clean energy transition,” she said.
This theme of inspiring the future generation of clean energy leaders in crossing boundaries—both academically and professionally—echoed throughout the symposium, hosted this year by Texas A&M University. The annual conference, launched in 2011, is organized by the U.S. Department of Energy, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), Texas A&M Energy Institute, and Stanford Energy to increase gender diversity in the energy sector and provide awards to outstanding women in the field.
“It was just 56 years ago—in 1963—that women were even allowed to enroll at Texas A&M,” said Valentini Pappa, the academic program leader for Texas A&M Energy Institute. Today, women are still largely underrepresented in the energy field—a gap that the U.S. C3E Initiative aims to close through its programs.
“Simply stated, the need for smart, talented, and passionate people deciding to work in the clean energy arena could not be more obvious,” said Rachael Beitler, deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Energy and a C3E ambassador, in her welcoming remarks. “I’m proud of the work that the U.S. Department of Energy is doing to help highlight gender diversity in the workforce. By recognizing the leadership and achievements of outstanding women, C3E helps promote career advancement and inspire women of all ages to contribute to the clean energy field.”
To that end, CEOs, directors, global managers, presidents, founders, and researchers came together for this year’s symposium, not only to honor both established and emerging energy leaders, but also to discuss three main areas: inspiring the next generation for clean energy transformation; learning the route to meaningful careers in clean energy; and carrying and passing the baton. Recurring topics throughout the day included change agency, mentorship, and amplification—a practice traced back to women in the Obama administration, where they echoed and credited each other’s ideas in order to ensure that everyone’s voices were heard.
Karan L. Watson, a provost emeritus and Regents Senior Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University, said that implementing change, such as moving society toward a more sustainable energy future, requires us to understand both the strategy and the process of change, as well as our own role in the process. “Every change…requires people to change their behavior, and that is a different process than just intellectually telling them what they should do,” she said, noting that cultural shifts happen only when people feel, not just think, that the change will ultimately help them. She encouraged the audience to consider whether they are in a role where they are supposed to be a leader, a change agent, or both, and to apply that role to effect change within their own organizations.
Upon receiving the Business award, Mira Inbar, the commercial director at Royal Dutch Shell, echoed the importance of being an agent for change. She stated that changemakers are patient and resilient in the face of challenges and doubt, and held up Greta Thunberg—recently named the 2019 TIME “Person of the Year” for her work in bringing global attention to climate change through a massive youth-led climate strike—as both an example and an inspiration for those who are already working in the clean energy sector to push harder to achieve real progress. “The energy transition requires the changemakers,” said Inbar.
Several speakers addressed the importance of mentoring as a tool for attracting and keeping women in clean energy careers, and in supporting women as they navigate the various steps within those careers. Their recommendations included recognizing that everyone needs a mentor at some point in their careers; that good mentors help their mentees to challenge assumptions; that being a good mentee means being vulnerable; and that building a network of people who are truly supportive of one’s career journey is key to success.
“I think one reason C3E is focused on mid-career women is because we get a lot of women who enter the [clean energy] pipeline but then, for a whole variety of reasons, don’t continue through the pipeline,” said Maria T. Vargas, the senior program advisor and director of the Better Buildings Initiative, U.S. Department of Energy and a C3E ambassador. “It’s important to support women in all stages of their career—it’s awesome that we’ve got more and more women going into [energy]… but it’s really about keeping them and empowering them and connecting [them]… so that women remain in these fields, because we need women.”
Mentorship is not limited to the workplace; it’s also important in terms of inspiring the next generation of energy leaders. Denise Gray, the 2019 Lifetime Achievement award winner, and president of LG Chem Michigan Inc. Tech Center, reflected on how her own seventh-grade science teacher pushed her into the STEM field. The encouragement from this teacher set Gray on the path to an illustrious clean energy career, where she has focused on accelerating the development and deployment of advanced battery systems for transportation, as well as providing support to others entering the energy field.
“In our busy lives—whether we’re a teacher, whether we’re a scientist, whether we’re an engineer—we’re going to encounter people who, all they’re looking for is just a little bit of encouragement…I’m asking all of you to continue to [encourage others] because all it took was one teacher who had the audacity to push [me] forward,” said Gray. “If we can keep encouraging our children—if we can keep encouraging each other, amazing things that we could not even imagine can come to fruition.”
Becky Diffen, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP and the 2019 Law and Finance awardee, mentioned the concept of amplification to the audience. She urged conference attendees to go forth and amplify the voices of women and others who are typically underrepresented at their organizations as a step toward improving the inclusion and promotion of women across the energy sector as a whole.
Martha Broad, MITEI’s executive director, amplified Diffen’s remarks, and suggested additional ways to ensure that all voices are included in the energy field: reminding human resource departments to provide a mix of applicants that includes female candidates, and ensuring that organizations are including women in their roster of event speakers. “When you get back to your organizations, push for more women on panels,” she said. “Insist that yes, there is a woman expert out there, and really try to find them.”
Highlights from the incredible contributions made by this year’s awardees include Suzanne Singer, winner of the Entrepreneurship award and founder of Native Renewables, who is solving energy access challenges for the Navajo Nation by giving them affordable off-grid solar electricity solutions; and Sonia Aggarwal, the Advocacy award winner and vice president and cofounder of Energy Innovation, who provides high-quality research and analysis to policymakers around the world to help them make informed energy policy choices.
In addition to recognizing mid-career women whose work in clean energy is making a national and global difference, the C3E conference promotes the work of emerging energy researchers through an interactive poster session. This year, the conference organizers invited 46 students—representing both undergraduate and graduate-level research from universities across the U.S.—to present their work. Poster session winners included Ali Andrews and Sita Syal of Stanford University for their poster, “Community co-design in renewable energy project development,” and Wan-Yi Chu of the University of Pennsylvania, who presented a strategy for the carbon-neutral cycle of the production and use of methanol. The full lists of poster session and C3E award winners are below.
Broad provided the day’s closing remarks. “We’ve heard stories from women who have presided over major industry changes, transformed local government’s approach to sustainability, [and have] had an incredible mentoring impact to set the next generation of leaders on the path we so need toward accelerating our transition to a low- and no-carbon world,” she said.
Broad urged the audience to bring the insights and approaches from the day’s speakers home to their own organizations to help women thrive in the energy field. “That’s how I’ll know C3E is succeeding—as we are able to change our organizations incrementally from within,” she said.
The U.S. C3E Women in Clean Energy Symposium and Awards returns to MIT in December 2020.
2019 U.S. C3E awardees:
Lifetime Achievement: Denise Gray, President, LG Chem Michigan Inc. Tech Center (LGCMI)
Advocacy: Sonia Aggarwal, Vice President and Cofounder, Energy Innovation
Law and Finance: Becky Diffen, Partner, Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP
Business: Mira Inbar, Commercial Director, Royal Dutch Shell
Government: Larissa Johnson, Residential Energy Program Manager, Montgomery County (Maryland) Department of Environmental Protection
Education: Valerie Karplus, Assistant Professor of Global Economics and Management, MIT Sloan School of Management.
Research: Michelle Kidder, Research Staff Scientist, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Entrepreneurship: Suzanne Singer, Founder, Native Renewables
International: Radhika Thakkar, Director of Corporate Affairs, Greenlight Planet
2019 U.S. C3E Poster Competition winners:
Ali Andrews and Sita Syal
Poster title: Community co-design in renewable energy project development
University of Pennsylvania
Poster title: A strategy to a carbon-neutral cycle of the production and use of methanol
UC Santa Barbara
Poster title: Winds of change: assessing wind energy efficiency in complex terrain
University of Wisconsin – Madison
Poster title: Intelligent solar home system
Arizona State University
Poster title: Emissions trading and climate change: the consequences of pairing old solutions with new problems