Women have been at the forefront of energy innovation for over a century. From Katharine Burr Blodgett, who invented the monomolecular glass coatings that make solar panels and LED bulbs possible, to Beatrice Hicks, who developed environmental sensors for heating and cooling systems, the contributions of women in energy efficiency are everywhere.
Here at the VAEEC, the work women do to advance energy efficiency is obvious – we’re an all women team, with five additional women serving on our Board of Directors. In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked several of them – Board Secretary Liz Beardsley, and Board member Leigh Anne Ratliff, and Executive Director Chelsea Harnish, – about their roles in the energy efficiency industry and their views on the industry itself.
How did you get into the energy efficiency industry?
Liz: I was drawn towards environmental issues from my childhood love of nature… and towards engineering from my interest in math and science. So environmental engineering was a natural fit in college. Through my career this eventually led to environmental policy, including using policy to reduce energy consumption and its impacts through efficiency.
Leigh Anne: I got into the energy efficiency industry from working with the PJM energy efficiency rebates. This program afforded me the opportunity to work with owners, contractors, engineers and architects on the many energy efficiency initiatives around the Commonwealth – from LED upgrades to specialized industrial equipment upgrades. I’m lucky – I get a bird’s eye view of this exciting industry.
Chelsea: As a policy manager for an environmental advocacy group, I had a basic understanding of energy efficiency and its benefits for creating a cleaner, healthier world. When the opportunity to lead the VAEEC became available, I jumped at the chance to really dive deeper into understanding this industry and its challenges and opportunities.
What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities for women in the energy efficiency field?
Liz: There can still be some unfortunate and inaccurate stereotypes about women in technical fields so perhaps a challenge in some circumstances is being underestimated. By and large however I see many opportunities for women in energy efficiency and each individual, woman or man, will do well to understand and leverage their own strengths.
Leigh Anne: I think the biggest challenge for women in the energy efficiency field is that a good part of it lies within the realm of STEM and women are still only 28% of the STEM workforce. When I went to engineering school it was a rarity for women to be in the classroom – but that was in the 1980’s. I can’t believe that there is still such a disparity. That being said, the smaller numbers of women in this field is an opportunity as well – employers see the value of diversity and women are succeeding in leadership roles in the energy industry. It’s a fun time to watch LinkedIn and see which women in energy are getting promoted to the highest levels in their company.
Chelsea: I think the opportunities for women in this field are endless. Our industry is so unique in that there are a wide range of positions from inventing new technologies or writing code to spending your days in a crawlspace, and everything in between. This industry provides the opportunity to do what you love while helping make someone’s home or workspace more comfortable.
What advice would you offer women entering the industry?
Liz: Work hard, be aware of opportunities, find your voice and use it.
Leigh Anne: Listen a lot and build your skillset. Develop mentors. You’re not expected to know everything so be patient with yourself. Take notes and follow up if you hear something that interests you or you don’t understand. Be curious and brave!
Chelsea: My general advice for young women entering the workforce is to not be afraid to use your voice. You were chosen for your position as the best candidate so don’t feel that you cannot bring new ideas to the table.
What is your number one energy efficiency tip?
Liz: Turning off the lights. My dad drilled this into me as a child in the 70s and I think it creates an awareness and mindset that carries into many other things with a cumulative beneficial impact.
Leigh Anne: If you haven’t installed LEDs yet, run to a store and get them right now.
Chelsea: We love our smart thermostat!
What is one thing about the energy efficiency industry that you would like to see change?
Liz: Breaking down silos! There is a lot of fragmentation. [But] when we work together, we have a stronger message and can achieve more. This is one of the great benefits of VAEEC!
Leigh Anne: I’d like energy efficiency to get more credit for the game changer that it is.
Chelsea: We need more workforce development training to provide more demand for the job creation we are seeing and hope to see further in the future.