Building Back Greener: Annual Clean Energy Extravaganza Recap

Building Back Greener: Annual Clean Energy Extravaganza Recap


By Eghe Herrmann


Clean Energy in Our Future: Panel 1 Recap Article

The first panel focused on Sustainability and Clean Energy and was moderated by Nikki Metha. Nikki, is the Director of Energy and Sustainability, Honeywell, and a CWEEL Lead, AEEE (Alliance for an Energy-Efficient Economy).

Panel Speakers included:

Dr. Kelly Leffler – Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Ida Namur – Vice President, Director of Operations for AECOM’s Energy Business, and Vice President of AEE NCC.

Leah Nichols – Executive Director of George Mason University’s Institute of Sustainable Earth (ISE).


The session opened with panelists giving a brief overview of their backgrounds. Several questions were asked on their career paths to sustainability and challenges encountered at the early stages of their careers.  The moderator, Ms. Nikki Metha, was eager to know what excited them about the transition to the new Biden administration, which focuses on clean energy.  Finally, they were asked to advise people transitioning to a career in sustainability. This is what they had to say:

Dr. Kelly Leffler started as a research assistant, for solar energy conversion.  After graduate school, she got interested in policy and joined the Department of Energy, where she conducted rigorous fuel-neutral system analysis to create actionable data-driven policies. With a curious mind, motivated by challenges, and data driven, she focused on cross-cutting R&D issues like grid monetization initiatives and headed state policymaker outreaches.  She soon realized that nuclear power was the largest emission-free source of electricity in 2019 and transitioned into the office of Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy. Although Nuclear Energy had a completely different scope and scale from the solar industry, she was ready to take up new challenges and learn.

When asked the challenges she encountered at early stages of her career, she replied that she always felt her age (as the youngest at the table) added a layer of unconscious bias. Through the help of supervisors, she was able to develop firmness to prevent certain behaviors. She says that having women in leading positions helped her develop a polite but firm toolbox to put forward her ideas without having them dismissed.

With President Biden’s target of net zero by 2050 goal, Kelly is very excited to be a contributor to what she calls: a “big bold goal.” Her corporation is excited to move forward with the demonstration programs initiated during President Trump’s administration.

On the topic of career transitioning into sustainability, she believes that sustainability is a very broad space, cutting across many industries. She advises people transitioning to this area to find topics of highest interests to them, as sustainability is an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ subject.

Ida Namur – Ida studied environmental science in Hawaii. She got a job as an environmental scientist, working on projects that solve sustainability problems. She later became a Project & Business Development Manager. She joined the Association of Energy Engineers National Capital (AEE NCC) in 2018 and through networking with industry colleagues, built knowledge in energy topics. She now works as a Regional Operations Manager, harnessing opportunities in research and international collaboration.

When asked the challenges she faced at early stages of her career, she stated: “There is an underline stereotype about what we are able to do and where we are in our career based on what we look like.“  It is critical to have people who look and think differently involved in work to overcome some of the existing challenges of clean energy. She advises following one’s passion when transitioning to a career in sustainability.

Compared to the previous administration, she is excited about Biden’s administration, as it moves deeper towards clean energy goals, synchronizing private and public sector aims and objectives. She sees having common goals as being able to accelerate the needed changes in the sector.

When asked how cross-disciplines could coordinate or synchronize efforts in solving sustainability problems, she believes that being a “generalist” creates awareness and understanding of every aspect of a problem.

On the topic of women inclusivity in Clean Energy, she acknowledges the difficulties of overcoming decades and centuries of norms on gender and race but advocates for the need to recognize diversity. She concludes by saying that, men also have a role to play in addressing such problems and upholding women in the decarbonization space.

Leah Nichols – has always been “sustainability-conscious” right from her childhood. While following her passion, she started out as an environmental engineer and pursued graduate studies, which exposed her to many sustainability-interconnected areas. She developed an interest in problem-driven knowledge, production and use. She currently works at George Mason University, where she is responsible for putting research and scholarship into action towards a just, prosperous and sustainable world. Her organization mentors people in a formal way and builds programs that support diversity in gender and race.

In early stages of her career, although never intimidated into working in areas of no interest to her, she has felt a certain bias that STEM courses (mathematics, sciences and computer) were for men, while girls belonged to the biological, social sciences and arts classes. STEM programs are considered more seriously than others, but she believes the social sciences have a place at the table, as they play an important role in deployment of technologies, ensuring technical solutions are equitable.

She emphasizes the need for self-care and wellbeing in addition to following one’s passion, when transitioning to sustainability areas, especially as sustainability goals can be challenging and overwhelming.

With the focus by the Biden’s administration on clean energy, climate change, social justice and equity, which aligns well with her work, she is happy to see the strategy for clean energy spread across various areas, from jobs creation, technology, social justice to rescaling and upscaling. She believes more projects can be brought to life with this approach.

Leah believes cross-discipline, synchronized efforts in sustainability, will help people identify the frameworks of how people’s views on a subject matter can differ. By understanding the differences, opinions and aspects of other people’s work, working together becomes easier. She believes that engaging natural sciences in policies and understanding the intersection of values in shaping policies is important.“By bringing scientists to work in government agencies, they can better understand the dialogues occurring in the political space and find workable solutions,” she says.

Building Back Circular: Panel 2 Recap Article

The second panel of the 7th Annual Clean Energy Extravaganza Forum focused on the Circular Economy. The panel was moderated by Lara Ilao. Lara is the Founder & Owner of Plastic Tree and Chair, Circular Economy Working Group.


Panel Speakers included:

Emily Yates- Smart Director of City of Philadelphia, SmartCities PHL

Jim Schulman – Executive Director, Alliance for Regional Cooperation

Jessica Wright – LEED Senior Project Manager, ecoPreserve

Meagan Knowlton – Director of Sustainability, Optoro


The session opened with panelists giving a brief overview of their backgrounds. Several questions on the career paths to their current circular economy roles, technology implementation to their current work strategies and Investment in the circular economy without capital, amongst others, were asked.


Emily Yates worked for a Think Tank in D.C. called the German Marshall Fund. She led sustainable cities projects, exchanging ideas on best practices and policies between Europe and the USA. She led a study tour focused on energy economy, which led her to another company in Charlotte, where she worked on developing circular strategies. She later moved to Philadelphia to work for SmartCities PHL.  At SmartCities, she saw a great spot for sustainability with the help of technology and data. These, she says are imperative for a transition towards sustainability and has impacts on a city with diverse needs. Her role in Philadelphia has enabled her work on both technical and economic aspects of projects: creating jobs and reducing costs.

In Philadelphia, she has launched the ‘Pitch and Pilot’ project that solicits ideas to improve government services through technological innovation. The program offers funding to test promising solutions in partnership with the private sector. Through this project, call-to-solutions are issued around municipal waste challenges to improve waste management.

Through partnership with a company focused on the circular economy, her company has identified sources of demolition wastes and hopes to reduce illegal construction and demolition dumping. Her work currently focuses on showing cities’ examples of what works and taking actions towards a better environment.

Emily believes a good way to invest in the circular economy without investing capital, is by initiating pilot projects with minimum cost through strategic partnership. Progress is achieved by identifying a win-win situation for both parties, which does not require a lot of front-end investment cost.


When asked a compelling policy change that is pivotal to attaining her goals, she believes that improving the sustainability of cities’ procurement processes is important. She concludes that the cities need to innovate at a faster rate while policies that support reuse of waste are set in place is important in accelerating the transition to a circular economy.


Jim Schulman as an architect realized the reuse of building material was the greenest circular thing one could do in the construction space. Along the way, he founded Community Forklift, which is a 16 year old “used building material” store. After leaving Forklift, he joined the DCC Club Waste Committee and in conjunction with Building Material Waste Association, works to amend the DC Area Residential Code.

Material reuse not only inhibits unnecessary new production but consequently reduces energy & material consumption. He says that by transporting material within a region, cost is reduced, promoting the circular economy. He further emphasized the need for regionalized economies across the world.   According to studies, investing in local or regional businesses reinvests 60 cents/dollar back into the economy compared to shopping across border or regions, which only reinvests 40 cents/dollar. A lot of experimentation is going on in the USA for reuse of materials especially in California. He believes that government, when faced with certain obstacles, should try out other methods.

To answer the question on ways to invest in the circular economy without investing capital, he says, getting small businesses to buy and sell from each other by default, rather than procuring goods and services outside the region, enhances circularity without huge investments. By so doing, “There is always a cost to obtain good circular practices not just upfront but downstream as well,” he stated.


Jessica Wright worked as an operations manager at a hospital where she noticed the massive generation of waste in daily operations and tried to minimize or diverting these wastes from landfills. She later switched careers, moving to a waste management program at ecoPreserve. At her current job, she delves into incoming and outgoing material flow of businesses in order to minimize their produced waste.


By working with the leadership of large cities or operations, investing time with the right partners (mid-level leaders and ‘boots on the ground’) through workshops, she is able to make progressive steps towards attaining a circular economy. These workshops additionally present the opportunity to better understand the best and most challenging parts of the client’s jobs, the improvements needed and the changes necessary for improvements. She says interactions with the key people leads  togreat ideas, which helps to manage waste, water and other resources. Through this method, best-case scenarios are developed and presented to leadership.

Her organization also reaches out to manufacturers with technology to test their products on-site through certain tools for better ideas and process improvements.


Answering the question on investing in a circular economy without capital, she responded by saying that producer and consumer must have some accountability for their produced and consumed products. This drives a massive change in keeping trash out of landfills. She further emphasized the need for policies, as they are important in holding people accountable for what they consume and produce.


Meagan Knowlton has a background in retail. Prior to that, she worked in the food and beverage manufacturing system. Although she always had a “corporate-sustainability zero-waste to landfill” mindset, with Optoro, she developed a more circular approach. Her company, Optoro makes technology implemented in retailer-operated warehouses and brands to help companies figure out what to do with returned products from consumers, stores and shelves, keeping waste out of landfills. She believes in the importance of intentionality in product design, for reuse or recyclability.

On the issue of investing in the circular economy, she considers it more of a case of correctly framing the benefits for the objectives of the project rather than cost. She is convinced that by pairing sustainability and circularity benefits with key financial benefits, reduction of labor cost, freeing warehouse space, and increase on return on investment can be achieved.  She says that achieving sustainability will be easier by finding companies that have sustainability values tied to their company goals.

Finally, she concludes that the most crucial policies to achieving a circular economy are setting up extended producer responsibility policies at both the state and federal levels. Getting companies to set up corporate policies and commitments about their products would keep their products away from landfill.

You can view the recording of the Extravaganza sessions here.

Eghe Herrmann worked for over 5 years as a Process Engineer, in the Oil and Gas Industry in Nigeria and later obtained a master’s degree in Chemical and Energy Engineering in Germany. She is currently a Project Coordinator, working jointly with partners in industry and academia to promote sustainable use of energy and mitigation of greenhouse-gases through Power–to-X technologies in the Energy, Chemical, and wastewater industry. 


Leaders in Energy is committed to building a network of changemakers to accelerate clean energy and sustainability solutions for “The Big Green Shift” through multigenerational talent and leadership. We welcome you to join us!
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