By Elizabeth Garduza
On March 12th, 2021, the Association of Energy Engineers National Capital Chapter (AEE NCC, the Council on Women in Energy & Environmental Leadership (CWEEL), and Leaders in Energy held the 7th Annual Clean Energy & Sustainability Extravaganza.
This year’s event was held online, in order to protect the safety of our attendees and follow social distancing guidelines. But the virtual format enabled attendees from across the globe to participate in the lively panel discussion.
Christina DiBerardino, a member of AEE NCC and CWEEL, served as the master of ceremonies for the event and discussed both CWEEL and AEE NCC’s work to promote education and support women working in sustainability and energy.
Christina next introduced Doug Millar, an AEE NCC Board Member and Regional Director at Edison Energy–the event’s Clean Energy Leader Sponsor. He discussed recent changes in the energy sector, from creating “utility savings” to develop strategies to reduce CO2 and increase resiliency. He pointed out that in this industry that there is a wide spectrum of jobs in design, project management, policy, research and development, financing, and development. These changes provide opportunities for research and development of new technologies, novel financing opportunities, policy development, and engagement of wider perspectives in the transition to a greener energy future.
This year, the event consisted of two panels focused on three critical themes in the transition towards clean energy–the role of women in the energy sector, circular economy, and sustainability.
Opportunities under the New Administration
Under the Biden-Harris Administration, a range of new opportunities is emerging in the energy and environmental sectors.
According to Nikki Mehta, Director of Energy and Sustainability in Honeywell and member of CWEEL and AEE NCC “reports show that more than a half (52%) of Biden’s transition staff are women, 53% senior staff is female, and 42% of people of color”. Moreover, Congress is currently approving several bills like the Green Act 2021 and the Clean Energy Standard, which proves that this year marks the beginning of a new chapter in the US energy and sustainability sector.
Clean Energy in Our Future
The first panel, Clean Energy in Our Future, focused on the changing role of women in energy and sustainability, and particularly women working in government, education, and industry. The panel was moderated by Nikki Mehta and featured prominent leaders in energy and sustainability: Dr. Kelly Lefler, Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the US Department of Energy; Ida Namur, Vice President and Director of Operations for AECOM’s Energy Business and Vice President of AEE NCC; and Leah Nichols, Executive Director of George Mason University’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth (ISE).
The discussion started with each participant’s background. Dr. Lefler explained that her career path has been driven by her ‘sense of curiosity’. Following graduate school, she joined the Department of Energy, where she worked on “rigorous fuel neutral system analysis to create actionable data-driven policy recommendations”. More recently, her work is on nuclear energy as an emissions-free energy solution in the US.
Ida Namur, an environmental scientist, discussed her research on the health effects of solar radiation due to the depletion of the ozone layer’s protection. Currently, she is working towards integrated sustainability, team management, and business strategy.
Leah Nichols shared her career path, from an environmental engineer to a prominent member working in energy education–“putting research and scholarship into action for a just, prosperous, and sustainable world”.
The panel discussed challenges and obstacles they have faced during their career development. They agreed that age and gender are still a factor that can present obstacles, and that there remains a perception of social sciences as “female sciences,” while more technical fields such as math, physics, or computer science are viewed as “male sciences”. At the same time, the panel agreed that there increasingly more opportunities for women in leadership, and greater systems of support.
The panelists concluded that passion, commitment, and partnership towards making positive change were vital.
Next, Leaders in Energy’s enthusiastic Executive Director, Janine Finnell, highlighted LE’s commitment to “The Big Green Shift”— building a community of leaders to accelerate clean energy and sustainable solutions. Leaders in Energy focuses on five key areas: Green Finance, Green Jobs / Careers, Multigenerational Leadership & Talent, Green Marketplace / Circular Economy, and building a Global Action Network through its Ambassadors program.
Building Back Circular
Building Back Circular, the second panel, focused on the circular economy was moderated by Lara Ilao, Founder and owner of Plastic Tree and Chair of the Leaders in Energy Circular Economy Working Group. This panel included leading actors in circular economy and sustainability: Emily Yates, Smart Director of the City of Philadelphia, SmartCities PHL; Jim Schulman, Executive Director, Alliance for Regional Cooperation; Jessica Wright, LEED Senior Project Manager in ecoPreserve; and Meagan Knowlton, Director of Sustainability in Optoro.
Creating Opportunities to Promote Circularity
The discussion opened with the question about the motive that drove the panelists towards the circular economy. Emily Yates remarked that her journey began in the energy economy, which led her to a study tour in Amsterdam, where she learned the circular economic relationship between European and US cities. Jim Schulman shared that he realized that he could undertake actions towards the waste the construction sector produces. These actions led him to found Community Forklift, a nonprofit reuse warehouse. Jessica Wright, on the other hand, started her career path in the hospitality sector: as an operations manager at a hospital, she recognized wasteful practices in daily operations, which led her to become a waste diversion and recycling advisor in ecoPreserve. Jessica realized that companies wanted to transition to a zero-waste policy, but didn’t support the organizations that made it possible. She added that “if there’s no one to buy the recyclables, [they become] trash”. Lastly, Meagan Knowlton started in the retail sector, and seeing the connection between consumerism and how we interact with products led her to join Optoro, which makes warehouse technologies for retailers to reduce waste from returned products.
All the panelists agreed that it is vital to implement technologies and services to promote the reuse and recycling of products. For example, it is essential for cities to co-create strategies to create jobs, reduce risks and provide economic mobility. At the same time, they must also reduce carbon emissions and waste, according to Emily Yates.
According to Jim Schulman, at the Alliance for Regional Cooperation, when investing in local businesses, 60 cents of the dollar would be reinvested in the economy, in contrast to only 40 cents of the dollar when investing in international companies. The panelists that having a close relationship between local communities and companies guarantees that the economic decisions made benefit community members in addition to businesses.
In conclusion, one of the critical requirements to promote equity and resilience in the energy economy is developing a community-led support network–something Leaders in Energy strives to achieve through inclusive, interdisciplinary sustainability-focused events.
You can view the recording of the Extravaganza sessions here.
Elizabeth Garduza is an architect and an enthusiast of the use and research of traditional materials and constructive processes focused on adequate housing and inclusive cities.