“To turbocharge work on saving the planet, we need effective, innovative, localized solutions, and diverse perspectives and experience at the table,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, the keynote speaker at the 10th annual U.S. Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) Women in Clean Energy Symposium and Awards.
This event, convened virtually over November 3rd and 4th and engaging more than one thousand participants, was devoted to the themes of justice and equity in clean energy. In panels and presentations, speakers hammered home the idea that the benefits of a zero-carbon future must be shared equitably, especially among groups historically neglected or marginalized. To ensure this outcome, the speakers concluded, these same groups must help drive the clean energy transition, and women, who stand to bear enormous burdens as the world warms, should be central to the effort. This means “practicing vigilant inclusion,” said Granholm.
The C3E symposium, which is dedicated to celebrating the leadership of women in the field of clean energy and inspiring the next generation of women leaders, featured professionals from government, industry, research, and other sectors. Some of them spoke from experience, and from the heart, on issues of environmental justice.
“I grew up in a trailer park in northern Utah, where it was so cold at night a sheet of ice formed on the inside of the door,” said Melanie Santiago-Mosier, the deputy director of the Clean Energy Group and Clean Energy States Alliance. Santiago-Mosier, who won a 2018 C3E award for advocacy, has devoted her career “to bringing the benefits of clean energy to families like mine, and to preventing mistakes of the past that result in a deeply unjust energy system.”
Tracey A. LeBeau, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who grew up in South Dakota, described the flooding of her community’s land to create a hydroelectric dam, forcing the dislocation of many people. Today, as administrator and CEO of the Western Area Power Administration, LeBeau manages distribution of hydropower across 15 states, and has built an organization in which the needs of disadvantaged communities are top of mind. “I stay true to my indigenous point of view,” she said.
The C3E Symposium was launched in 2012 to increase gender diversity in the energy sector and provide awards to outstanding women in the field. It is part of the C3E Initiative, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), Texas A&M Energy Institute, and Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy, which hosted the event this year.
As the COP26 climate summit unfolded in Glasgow, highlighting the sharp divide between rich and poor nations, C3E panelists pursued a related agenda. One panel focused on paths for collaboration between industrialized nations and nations with developing economies to build a sustainable, carbon-neutral global economy.
Radhika Thakkar, the vice president of corporate affairs at solar home energy provider Greenlight Planet and a 2019 C3E international award winner, believes that small partnerships with women at the community level can lead to large impacts. When her company introduced solar lamp home systems to Rwanda, “Women abandoned selling bananas to sell our lamps, making enough money to purchase land, cows, even putting their families through school,” she said.
Sudeshna Banerjee, the practice manager for Europe and Central Asia and the energy and extractives global practice at the World Bank, talked about impacts of a bank-supported electrification program in Nairobi slums where gang warfare kept girls confined at home. “Once the lights came on, girls felt more empowered to go around in dark hours,” she said. “This is what development is: creating opportunities for young women to do something with their lives, giving them educational opportunities and creating instances for them to generate income.”
Amy Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography and regional planning at MIT, believes remote, rural communities require broadband and other information channels in order to chart their own clean energy journeys. “We must provide access to more than energy, so people can educate themselves and imagine how the energy transition can work for them.”
Santiago-Mosier described the absence of rooftop solar in underprivileged neighborhoods of the nation’s cities and towns as the result of a kind of clean energy redlining. “Clean energy and the solar industry are falling into 400-year-old traps of systemic racism,” she said. “This is no accident: senior executives in solar are white and male.” The answer is “making sure that providers and companies are elevating people of color and women in industries,” otherwise “solar is leaving potential growth on the table.”
Jessica Granderson, the director of building technology at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the 2015 C3E research award winner, is measuring and remediating greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s hundred million-plus homes and commercial structures. In a panel exploring data-driven solutions for advancing equitable energy outcomes, Granderson described using new building performance standards that improve the energy efficiency and material performance of construction in a way that does not burden building owners with modest resources. “We are emphasizing engagements at the community level, bringing in a local workforce, and addressing the needs of local programs, in a way that hasn’t necessarily been present in the past,” she said.
To facilitate her studies on how people in these communities use and experience public transportation systems, Tierra Bills, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University, is developing a community-based approach for collecting data. “Not everyone who is eager to contribute to a study can participate in an online survey and upload data, so we need to find ways of overcoming these barriers,” she said.
Corporate efforts to advance social and environmental justice turn on community engagement as well. Paula Gold-Williams, a C3E ambassador and the president and CEO of CPS Energy, with one million customers in San Antonio, described a weatherization campaign to better insulate homes that involved “looking for as many places to go as possible in parts of town where people wouldn’t normally raise their hands.”
Carla Peterman, the executive vice president for corporate affairs and chief of sustainability at Pacific Gas & Electric, and the 2015 C3E government award winner, was deliberating about raising rates some years ago. “My ‘aha’ moment was in a community workshop where I realized that a $5 increase is too much,” she said. “It may be the cost of a latte, but these folks aren’t buying lattes, and it’s a choice between electricity and food or shelter.”
Humanity cannot win the all-out race to achieve a zero-carbon future without a vast new cohort of participants, symposium speakers agreed. A number of the 2021 C3E award winners who have committed their careers to clean energy invoked the moral imperative of the moment and issued a call to arms.
“750 million people around the world live without reliable energy, and 70% of schools lack power,” said Rhonda Jordan-Antoine PhD ’12, a senior energy specialist at the World Bank who received this year’s international award. By laboring to bring smart grids, battery technologies, and regional integration to even the most remote communities, she said, we open up opportunities for education and jobs. “Energy access is not just about energy, but development,” said Antoine, “and I hope you are encouraged to advance clean energy efforts around the globe.”
Faith Corneille, who won the government award, works in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Energy Resources. “We need innovators and scientists to design solutions; energy efficiency experts and engineers to build; lawyers to review, and bankers to invest, and insurance agents to protect against risk; and we need problem solvers to thread these together,” she said. “Whatever your path, there’s a role for you: energy and climate intersect with whatever you do.”
“We know the cause of climate change and how to reverse it, but to make that happen we need passionate and brilliant minds, all pulling in the same direction,” said Megan Nutting, the executive vice president of government and regulatory affairs at Sunnova Energy Corporation, and winner of the business award. “The clean energy transition needs women,” she said. “If you are not working in clean energy, then why not?”