What it Will Take to Change Our Country's Energy Story
I have a confession to make: I wasn’t involved with climate and clean energy issues when I was in college. I wanted to be, but my options were limited: be an activist or study engineering. I went to a small liberal arts school in Oregon on a theatre scholarship, so engineering wasn’t really my calling, and the activists kept pointing out the problems in the world. But I liked building things.
After college, I ended up working at a hospital in Oregon’s wine country—a small hospital that would soon be the country’s first Gold LEED certified hospital. I was able to combine my interests in green building, community relations, and art, and help put a hospital on the map that was a national example of how a healthy building contributed to healthy patients. In that job, I learned about how much energy hospitals use, about how complex energy is, and how hard it is to engage corporations, utilities, and community members about new solutions to energy choices.
A few years after I left the hospital, a small group of us decided to do something big: plan the largest teach-in in U.S history and focus it entirely on climate change. We called the project Focus the Nation, and on January 31, 2008, 1,900 teach-ins took place across the country. It was huge. It was at the height of the early presidential primaries between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. We were all over the news. But afterwards, I realized it didn’t attract all the different students working on the same end goal of sustainable energy. And when we surveyed the majority of students who did get involved, they said they wanted to commit their civic and professional lives—not just their collegiate activism—to solving climate change and building a low-carbon world.
How do we attract unlikely groups of students to work together on this issue? And how do we ensure that their collaborations on campus produce workforce-ready skills that move the energy industry forward?
These were the two main questions circulating in my head right around the time I started shooting hoops on Thursdays with a bunch of electricians who had designed and wired that hospital I worked at years ago. They told me stories about the cool jobs they work on now that make energy work smarter. Then I got an email from my little brother about the first biofuel patent he had just signed as a chemical engineering student at UC Berkeley, and I kept thinking, there’s a role for everybody in this.
What emerged was a simple collaboration framework that Focus the Nation now uses in building teams of college students all over the country. To solve big problems, we need four types of people working together: technicians, politicos, storytellers, and innovators. The framework helps students figure out what they’re good at, and why that matters in the context of what other people are good at. It also accelerates a group’s ability to design solutions.
We launched this framework in 2010, and since then have built teams of students in more than 30 states. These students are adding renewable energy to their grid, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and have unlocked more than $245,000 in local capital to support their projects. They're also gaining leadership skills that have produced partnerships with their town councils, planning commissions, public utility districts, and elected leaders. In the Focus the Nation network, they get access to mentorship from energy industry experts across the country who have signed on to help accelerate young clean energy talent. Those who have graduated are now working for companies and organizations like Vestas, GE Wind, EDP Renewables, the Sierra Club, and Alliance for Climate Education.
The U.S. Department of Energy is now using our collaboration framework and our Energy 101 curriculum to inform a new national energy literacy standard that they will begin rolling out in late 2013 for high school teachers and college professors.
To achieve a more sustainable energy system in the U.S., we tend to fixate on political and technical challenges. This is important because we ultimately need to overhaul our electrical and transportation infrastructure. What we often overlook though, is our human capital gap on the issue. Smart decisions, breakthrough innovations, unlikely collaborations, accelerating innovations into the marketplace, advancing policies that change the game, rebuilding transmission lines—all of these decisions are made by people in positions of leadership who have tremendous capacity to simultaneously balance pragmatism, tension, and imagination.
The utility industry alone is facing a 62 percent turnover in the next decade. What’s the strategy to replace that talent? And what kind of skills do we need them to have beyond their technical and academic training if we’re serious about making our energy systems more resilient, efficient, and smart? Just last week an executive in the renewable energy sector told me that they are more likely to hire someone who has done an internship at a utility, than someone who has five years of experience at another renewable energy company. Why? Because no matter how much renewable energy you produce, you have to play ball with utilities to make the economies of scale work.
Every year, our 7,000 universities across the country pump out 1.5 million students. If you add up all the programs out there on campuses that are teaching those students about the complexity of our climate and energy challenges, not even 1 percent of our 1.5 million students have the intellectual grounding or the leadership skills to tackle this problem.
So, as the GOOD community focuses on energy throughout the month of February, if you live in a house somewhere that has a monthly energy bill, try geeking out on how much energy you use. It’s cool to know, and fun to learn about your options to reduce how much you use. Every utility in America has an efficiency strategy; call them up and ask how you can help. If you’re a tech nerd or policy wonk, get to DC at the end of February and attend the 4th annual ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. It will blow your mind.
For those of you who are university presidents (or who went to college and are looking for an excuse to call your alma mater and talk about legacy and philanthropy), if you start offering Energy 101 courses tied to leadership and career skills that fast track students into meaningful work in the energy industry, I guarantee it will help you attract and retain students. Nine out of 10 young people I meet all over the country want to be a part of something good—like changing our country’s energy story.
energy smackdown. Find a neighbor with a household of roughly the same square footage and see who can trim their power bill the most. Throughout February, we'll share ideas and resources for shrinking your household carbon footprint, so join the conversation at good.is/energy.
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne