Some of the most successful women in clean energy were recently honored at the U.S. Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) annual symposium for women in clean energy. The program, run by the U.S. Department of Energy and the MIT Energy Initiative, highlighted the progress women have made in the sector both in the U.S. and internationally. While women have contributed to some of the progress made in this space – whether it’s through their work of developing electric cars, installing solar panels, or bringing affordable power to low-income families – they each highlighted the need for more innovation, and the importance of getting more women involved.
Lifetime Achievement Award
Maxine Savitz, vice president, National Academy of Engineering, received the lifetime achievement award for her work in government and policy, science and technology, and work in both the public and private sector. Savitz most recently retired from Honeywell, Inc., where she oversaw development and manufacturing of materials for aerospace, transportation, and industrial sectors. She also worked for the Department of Energy.
Most recently, Savitz worked with Dr. Ernest Moniz, the U.S. secretary of energy, on a committee recommending approaches to accelerate energy technology innovation. “This work led to President Obama’s directive in his climate action plan for a quadrennial energy review – a major undertaking to weave together the many threads of energy policy development,” Moniz wrote in a letter to Savitz.
And while Savitz’s most recent accomplishments should be recognized, she also made major breakthroughs in the science and technology space in the 1980s and 1990s that should not be ignored, said Marilyn Brown from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Savitz led the effort to successfully develop silicon nitride for high temperature applications at AlliedSignal, using silicon nitride for small gas turbine engine equipment for auxiliary equipment to achieve greater energy efficiency.
When reflecting on her career, Savitz said one of the most important achievements was that clean energy didn’t exist 40 or 50 years ago. “No one was concerned [about energy] until we were limited, referring to the oil embargo in 1973. “Now we’ve got LEDs, which is revolutionary and exciting. Then it went on to compact florescent lights. That was one of the big returns on investments that was government funded in the 1970s that led to real market penetration that continues to be helpful and improved by standards.”
Innovation and Technology Development Award
Nancy PFund, managing partner at DBL Investors presented the award to Milo Werner, senior manager of manufacturing introduction at Tesla Motors. At Tesla, Werner is responsible for the launch of all new vehicle and powertrain models, and is a member of the team responsible for Tesla Model S, Toyota Rav4 EV, and Daimler Smart Car.
DBL Investors was an early investor in Tesla, and PFund said it has paid off greatly. “When it comes to achieving green energy goals, transportation is a big problem,” adding 30% of carbon emissions are related to transportation. “We’ve been working over the decades with incremental progress, just getting slightly better gas mileage.”
But Tesla’s entry into the market has brought about significant change. “More recently we’ve seen a new entrant, a new way of thinking, new talents brought to bear on this problem, a new attitude, and an entirely new vision on how to make progress in this important arena,” PFund said. “[Tesla] is an innovation leader success story but has become an aspirational icon for clean energy advocates across the globe.”
PFund said Werner’s work at Tesla integrated product development with launch integrations, keeping research and development together with manufacturing. “That’s something Milo knows and has helped Tesla get to where it is today by pulling together engineering operations, product launch, and production change control all under one group.”
Werner said Tesla has created a new product strategy for developing products in-house that integrates product development with operations launch. Tesla uses a four-step cycle that leverages rapid prototyping to mature design and manufacturability. The first phase includes determining the product and brings in some engineering and manufacturing design. In this phase, one or two of the products will be made to show the idea is manufacturable.
The second phase includes building engineering validation prototypes and a development line is set up. Phase three is the manufacturability phase – nailing down how the product is going to be made and setting up production lines to how it would perform in mass production.
By phase four, Tesla duplicates the production line in the manufacturing facility and brings up all the systems including background support and support on the factory floor. “This is really how we integrate both engineering design and operations,” Werner said.
Corporate Implementation Award
Kirstin Gunderson, senior manager of renewable energy at Walmart, won the award for Corporate Implementation. Gunderson helped advance Walmart’s onsite renewable energy portfolio, including its goal to produce 7 billion kWh of renewable energy globally by 2020.
In 2012 alone, Gunderson led the installation of Walmart’s first 1 MW onsite wind turbine. She was the project leader on producing 1 billion KW hours of clean energy, 20 solar installations, 5 fuel cells, 17 EV stations, 2 battery storage pilot projects, and the installations of 13 MW of installed renewable capacity.
“I have an interest in all things relational – how people relate to space, how people relate to each other – and a lot of those skills are what has helped me to be successful in a broader business,” Gunderson said. “These questions were not only about what we do accomplish to be stewards of our environment, but how we accomplish those things. It’s particularly important because what we do we hope will outlive us. And in order to do that successfully we need to be reaching across the aisle and tap into that relational quality that allows us to communicate across geographies, business divisions, between associates and customers.”
Gunderson said the canvas at Walmart is both large and quite varied and offers her the opportunity to amplify the impact. Leaders in the space who have laid the groundwork to help Walmart understand energy efficiency and renewable energy deployment as a business opportunity are also important in the space. “Through the work of the Global Renewable Energy Council and the Global Energy and Facilities Networks – which are two of our global networks that think and act on issues of energy efficiency and renewable energy – that work has gained a sizeable global reach.”
“When we think about big issues like energy we have to think both locally and globally,” Gunderson said. “And corporations have a unique opportunity to do that and can be flexible in this space. It’s a clear opportunity to take advantage of that relational quality and women are the muscle memory in that so to the extent we can support women in this space then I think we can continue to be successful in the future.
Advancements for the Developing World Award
Katherine Lucey, chief executive officer at Solar Sister, won the award for creating a woman-centered sales network that allows women in Africa to earn an income by providing access to affordable solar light in their communities.
On Solar Sister making a difference by creating energy access in Africa, Lucey said, “We have a network of women who are trained in solar technology and clean energy technology who reach out to their community. They sell by selling the benefits of the product. By having this army of women going out there to sell the products, we have found a very successful strategy. We are creating energy access and economic opportunity for the Solar Sister entrepreneurs.”
Entrepreneurship and Innovative Business Models Award
Erica Mackie, co-founder and chief executive of Grid Alternatives – the largest nonprofit solar installer – helps provide renewable energy to the low-income families that need the savings the most, but have the least access. So far, the program has installed nearly 10 MW of solar power for over 3,300 low-income families in systems that will generate $91 million of long-term savings.
“It’s very exciting to talk about women’s presence in clean power and clean tech,” Mackie said. “I am convinced the only solution we can find to climate change is one that must include women and all of our communities. Our vision is our power can be produced cleanly. The only way to get there is by including inclusive and equitable solutions. Not only equitable solutions but because that’s the only way to do a just solution. In the U.S. alone, low-income communities are disproportionately paying for our traditional power generation.”
Mackie said the Grid Alternatives model is simple, as the firm hires local workers in low-income neighborhoods to help install the solar electric systems. “They can get hands on experience and get a first job in solar. And they are putting clean power in neighborhoods who typically don’t have access. These projects allow everyone to participate in the solution. And that’s the only way we will have a solution.”
Policy and Advocacy Award
Rebecca Stanfield, senior energy advocate and deputy director for policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest program, is helping transform utilities to move them from coal-fired capacity and fossil fuels to clean energy and energy efficiency. Through her work as director of Illinois’ environmental office, she helped push forward state emissions standards for power plants for mercury, reducing levels for Illinois by 90%. She also worked to get funding put up through an energy resource standard for Illinois that’s generating millions of dollars in investment for energy efficiency.
“There is a lot of potential to do big good things there,” Stanfield said, referring to the Midwest region. “It’s a region of the U.S. people understand is essential to achieving our climate goals and de-carbonizing our energy system, but people really struggle to understand the nature of our opportunities and the magnitude of the challenges we are facing there.”
Education and Mentorship Award
Kristen Graf, executive director of Women of Wind Energy, works to promote the education, professional development and advancement of women in the renewable energy economy.
“The conversations around women in the workplace and climate change are both incredibly a significant part of our current cultural chatter at the moment,” Graf said. “The challenging puzzle but also the opportunities are abunda