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Women at the forefront of renewable energy

Jing Tian
Jing TianI is an executive in the burgeoning solar energy sector in California. Photo: Shazia Z. Rafi.

Last week President Donald Trump announced to a dismayed world that the United States was “leaving” the Paris Agreement—the most important global accord to mitigate climate change. This announcement is the latest attack on the environment by this administration.

I recently had the opportunity to interact directly with staff inside the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of AirQualityAsia, a global advocacy campaign for clean air focusing on Asia’s rapidly growing economies. My exchanges with people inside the EPA provided a painful window into the agency, where dedicated staff are plugging away monitoring air quality and enforcing regulations that are still law while their work faces the Trump administration’s axe. 

The administration’s assault on the environment includes threats to the EPA budget (the proposed budget cuts the EPA’s funding by about 30 percent), weakening of pollution regulations, and appointment of a climate-change skeptic as the EPA administrator. Women’s groups like Moms Clean Air Force have led public opposition to these policies at the March for Science and the Climate March.

There is also a lesser-known resistance that is building within the economy—the renewable energy (RE) sector, including new energy finance, where women are also emerging as leaders of the global energy transition from fossil fuels. 

The Bloomberg New Energy Finance summit, which brings together senior management from all aspects of energy markets—companies, finance, and policy—holds three summits each year, in New York, London, and Shanghai. This year’s New York summit was titled The Future of Energy and provided a venue to talk to some of these women. The number of female panelists had increased from 21 percent last year to 27 percent this year, according to BNEF founder Michael Liebreich. “Renewable energy was fighting an incumbency [of thermal/fossil fuels],” he said. “Women are also fighting a cozy incumbency.”

A key factor driving the increased presence of women in RE is the rising numbers of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). Dr. Jing Tian came to the U.S. for her doctorate in chemistry. “I stayed to work in the burgeoning solar energy sector in California,” she said. Today she is president, America region, of Trina Solar, having worked primarily in product innovation. Dr. Xiaoting Wang, a BNEF analyst with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, believes that science can help overcome gender bias. “Through science we are looking at a very fundamental part of the universe; you realize people are just people.”

Women in energy have created their own network to improve gender diversity at senior levels in the field. The Hawthorn Club, formed in 2011, holds an annual parallel women’s summit the day after the BNEF which serves as a career networking and development event. Some of their members are pioneers of RE, having starting companies promoting sustainable energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal, and brought RE initiatives to developing countries that have no established power grids.

Nancy Pfund, Managing Partner of DBL Partners, has brought several start-ups to market and overseen their first public offerings. These include major companies like SunLight/SunPower, Tesla, and Solar City. “I was always passionate about the environment, worked with the Sierra Club; and I was determined to do impact investing, which combines financial returns with social returns,” says Pfund. “Now we are at our third fund of $400 million … prices are coming down, capacity of batteries is going up—it’s a game changer.”

This growth in RE is global. In China and India solar power is now cheaper than coal. “The clean technology sector has leveraged over $1 billion [Canadian] in equity; we are now at the tipping point, with RE at 3 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour, while coal costs 9 to 12 cents,” says Andrée-Lise Methot, managing director of Cycle Capital Management.

Even in the traditional fossil-fuel energy sector, women senior managers are the winds of change. Bernadine Maloney, VP of corporate affairs for ESB, a leading Irish utility that is expanding its RE, remembers being the only woman in the room. “Now the chair is female, and the company board is more than 50 percent female … we understand that climate change is one of the biggest challenges for the world.”

Women are also leading new start-up companies. Milo Werner, VP of hardware manufacturing and engineering at Off-Grid Electric, says it helps that the RE start-up industry is “young and innovative, with no preconceived notions of who should do the job.”

One of the more exciting frontiers in RE is in bringing solar power to off-grid developing countries, particularly in Africa, where 600 million people live without electricity. In these areas, there is no grid but there is consistent sunshine and key minerals for photovoltaics and batteries. Start-ups have headed to the continent; Werner’s company, Off-Grid Electric, is one of them. “We were founded in Tanzania five years ago; we provide the whole system for a household, lease-to-own—a combination solar panel for energy generation and battery for nighttime storage,” describes Werner.  

Financing for off-grid solar is also being provided by start-ups. SunFunder provides loans to retail solar energy companies and also to consumers through nonprofits like Solar Sister, which provides solar energy products through women entrepreneurs to women rural consumers in Africa. SunFunder was co-founded by Audrey Desiderato. “I was open to new experiences, having traveled the world with my French father and Indonesian mother, so when the opportunity came, I jumped in to open our offices in Tanzania” says Desidarato. 

Technology and the markets are clearly pointing the way to the sun, while Trump administration policy may still head back into the coal mine. Globally, it’s actually market forces that are leading the transition to RE, with governments lagging behind. According to Barbara Buchner, executive director of the Climate Policy Initiative, which provides data and analysis on energy finance and land-use policies, “Following the money shows the contradiction.” Globally investment in renewable energy was $392 billion in 2014; for the same year government subsidies for fossil fuel consumption were $493 billion.

Women are at the forefront of advocacy for speedier transitions away from fossil fuels to renewables.  “Yes, we face headwinds in federal politics,” acknowledges Pfund, “but we have tail winds at the state level in California and many other states where governors and public utilities are transitioning … people realize that even without the Climate [Change] imperative, the economics of clean energy are the handwriting on the wall.”  Women’s environment advocacy and their leadership in RE are based on scientific facts. Their work is quantifiable and profitable in a growing, flexible industry, leading the way to a low-carbon future for us all.

More articles by Category: Economy, Environment
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