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Power sisters: women in renewable energy

Jane Nicholls
July 18, 2017
The numbers are too big to ignore: gender equality boosts men and women, as well as industry, innovation and ultimately the planet. As we try to solve a bunch of complex challenges, we need to throw everyone at it.
Companies with more women on their boards do better financially than those with fewer or none, and affirmative-action initiatives help pick up the gender diversity pace. While statistics on gender balance in the industry are limited, the booming field of renewable energy has some amazing women in its ranks, and the Clean Energy Council (CEC) is right behind them.

Two years ago, the CEC launched Women in Renewables to help promote its industry as a leader in gender diversity in the workplace. On July 18, the CEC announced its Leaders’ Pledge, asking people to “step up to the plate and walk the talk” of promoting women, says the CEC’s executive general manager Natalie Collard, who oversees the Women in Renewables program.

The pledge is three simple commitments:

  • to set the example by being an inclusive leader

  • to decline invitations to appear in forums or on panels that are not gender diverse

  • to actively promote the achievements of women

“It’s open to anyone who self-identifies as a leader,” says Collard. “We can all make a difference. We want to be a women’s program that men can actively support and contribute to as well.”

Geoff Culbert, CEO and president of GE Australia, NZ and PNG, was among the first leaders to sign the pledge. “Meeting Australia’s biggest challenges like energy will require creativity and collaboration from diverse teams,” says Culbert. “It’s imperative that we take action to balance gender diversity and inclusion across the industry.”

At the 2017 Clean Energy Summit, AGL chief executive Andy Vesey noted, “One of the things I would expect and am very hopeful to see relatively soon, before five to ten years, is the increased participation of women in leadership in this sector. We still have to do work to do … the best way to drive the future more creatively is to have more women participating in leadership.”

Renewable energy, notes Collard, has “attracted a lot of people who are very innovative, built on the back of very sophisticated technologies and therefore that comes with a sophisticated mindset … the basis to push gender equality is quite strong”. (The CEC also funds an annual AICD scholarship towards the winner taking the company directors’ course, and advocates for more women on company boards.)

GE Reports spoke with three women working in renewable energy about their careers, their thoughts on the way forward for women, and what’s exciting them about the future of the industry.

" I am excited by exploring possibilities and breaking new ground, which is what renewable energy development is. There’s always something new to consider," says Catherine Way, business development manager, DP Energy.

Catherine Way, business development manager, DP Energy

Pathway: Way’s personal concern about climate change and her strong grounding in business principles led her to renewable energy. “I love imagining the future and setting out a pathway to get to the build of a project,” she says. “I’ve worked on renewable energy for the past 12 years, in BHP Billiton on greenhouse-gas energy management for the Olympic Dam expansion site, around renewable energy, energy efficiency and different technologies. I also worked in the South Australian government on creating a supportive policy environment for renewable energy, to attract investment to the state. That involved changing legislation, writing new planning law to support wind farms, and working with potential investors.” Way joined Irish-based renewable energy development firm DP Energy almost a year ago, and is heavily involved with the Port Augusta Renewable Energy Park. The 375MW solar PV-and-wind hybrid project—the company’s largest in Australia—is on track to be operational by 2019. It will feed into a substation that was formerly connected to a coal-fired power station, and is projected to produce 1,000 GWh per annum, enough to power 200,000 South Australian households each year, with an emissions saving of approximately 470,000 metric tonnes of CO2 annually.

Diversity: “Unconscious bias is very strong in many employment sectors,” says Way. “Renewable energy, because it is future-looking and it is new, embraces the gender question a bit better. Having said that, I’m still often the only woman in a meeting, so we’ve still got a way to go!” Way adds that DP Energy has exactly the same number of women as men in the company. “We are a small company of 22 people. We work hard, we work nimble and we do a bit of everything! I’m responsible for growing the business; my role includes signing up new sites, engaging with landowners, development approvals, project management, grid-connection negotiations, running tenders — it’s a very interesting job.”

Future: “What excites me is the evolution of the grid. It’s in transition and traditional thinking needs to be changed to future thinking, and be challenged to accommodate what is definitely the future: renewable energy.”

Amy Kean, renewable-energy advocate, Department of Planning and Environment, NSW government, turns the sod at the July 2017 ceremony marking the commencement of construction of the Bodangora wind farm.

Amy Kean, renewable-energy advocate, Department of Planning and Environment, NSW government

Pathway: Kean was inspired to work in renewable energy when she was a university student on exchange in Sweden 20 years ago. “Seeing the wind and bioenergy environment there, and how integral it was to their communities, motivated me about the potential of renewables,” she says. Doing voluntary work in rural India, she saw first-hand the potential that access to electricity offers communities there and in other developing countries. “Lighting for education, for working at night, for cooking, and getting rid of kerosene from houses, has a huge impact in transforming the lives of women in very, very poor places,” she says. “Renewable energy certainly benefits those women and they embrace it.” In her role now, Kean and her team work across government, communities and industries to help transform the energy market, and provide strategic advice to the NSW government. A critical part of their remit is addressing “unreasonable barriers” to clean-energy generation in NSW. “I’m doing a lot of work on strategic approaches to integrating more renewables into the grid,” she says. “Our priority is energy security, and ensuring a diverse and secure energy mix. We didn’t predict that wind and solar would grow so quickly and it’s very exciting that we can now look at the next wave of technologies to transform the grid.”

Diversity: “We need more women in renewable energy, because it is such a wicked problem and we need all minds—not just women, but diversity across many areas—to solve it,” says Kean. Decarbonising energy generation will happen “a lot faster and more effectively if we can have a balanced approach,” she adds. “Traditionally the energy market has been dominated by males, but that’s not the best way to solve such a complex problem.” Kean says she’s used to either being the only female in the room, or being in the minority. “I wouldn’t say it’s balanced in this sector, and that’s why we need to increase gender diversity, and there’s great work going on, such as the CEC’s board program,” she says. “Women value the role that clean energy has in addressing climate change, and the role that it has in developing countries in broader gender-equality issues. There’s an understanding of the benefits our industry has to global development. But all industries need diversity to get the best outcomes.” Kean notes that family-friendly workplaces benefit both sexes, adding that building a gender-diverse industry needs a targeted approach, such as “programs that encourage women to do public speaking and participate on boards”.

Future: “I’m very interested in the upgrading of the Snowy Hydro. That was our great nation-building project and it’s played a huge role in generation and the opportunity to expand that is a no-brainer, and great for renewables,” she says. “I’m also excited by the economics: the falling cost of technologies in the market is really going to shake things up. And technologies such as concentrated solar thermal and pumped hydro to support wind and solar—that’s really exciting.”

Jackie Brown, GE Renewable Energy commercial leader, says people working in renewables are passionate about the future of the planet.

Jackie Brown, commercial leader, GE Renewable Energy

Pathway: Armed with a business degree, Brown followed the well-beaten path of young Australian graduates to London, where she got a job with GE as a team coordinator in the renewable-energy business. That was 13 years ago. In the intervening years, she worked on onshore- and offshore-wind projects, spent time in GE’s power-conversion business, rejoined its renewable division as commercial leader, and returned to Australia to take up that role locally last year. “I lead the deal through the sales process for the each project—pricing discussions, technical evaluations, financing reviews, contract negotiations—whatever is required to get the deal from the tendering phase to signature,” she explains. Her focus at the moment is GE’s booming wind-farm business in Australia, but her remit covers parts of Asia and she’s worked on projects in Japan and Thailand, too. Closing the deals for two wind farms —AGL’s Silverton and Infigen Energy’s Bodangora— have kept her busy, with more to come.

Diversity: “People highlight renewables as quite a women-friendly industry,” says Brown. “I think that’s because it’s quite modern, in comparison to the rest of the energy industries, which have been around forever. When I look around GE, we have a good mix in our team, but when I go and deal with customers, I don’t necessarily see many women sitting across the table from me. There’s still a lot of men.” Across the sexes, she notes, people working in renewables are passionate about the future of the planet.

Future: “I am fascinated by offshore wind turbines, and the size and the rate that they’re increasing,” she says, adding that while GE’s offshore projects are progressing in the US and Europe, the company is not pursuing offshore in Australia right now. “The potential of digital wind farms is also exciting,” says Brown. “It will be really interesting to see what we can do with interrogating the data from turbines to enhance the performance of wind farms and get ahead with predictive maintenance on services. We’re gathering so much information from across GE’s entire global installed base. To be able to take that and analyse it via our Predix platform will be extremely powerful.”