Meet this Young Tribal Energy Champion, and 3 of Her Brightest Female Peers – CNET

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A startup founder helping tribal communities establish microgrids. A Nigerian immigrant helping low-income Texas residents get solar power. A pageant queen building miniaturized nuclear reactors. An engineer bringing a hackathon approach to the climate crisis.

What ties these people together is the energy of youth and a sense of urgency in finding solutions to address the problems arising from climate change. In the face of rising energy prices and the keenly felt impacts of the climate crisis — including unpredictable and extreme weather that can affect everything from our health to our homes — they’re shaping their careers around pursuing these solutions.

Wind turbines in the green field with CNET ZERO logo

Getty Images/Amy Kim/CNET

It’s a topic I’ve been writing about for four years now. I’ve attended the UN’s high-stakes climate summits. I’ve written about women as climate leaders, nature-based solutions to the crisis and the power of young people harnessing litigation to protect the environment.

For this story, I’m bringing you profiles of four dynamic women — women on a mission. All of them under 30, and one is just 21. They’re starting companies. They’re bringing solar to communities. They’re engineering solutions and acting as passionate advocates for a just energy transition in the US and beyond. They’re thinking creatively and acting decisively to tackle both the climate crisis and the country’s social issues in tandem. 

They’re seizing the moment.

“There’s an opportunity here that we would be wasting if we don’t spend the time to co-create new energy realities,” says Sanjana Paul, a grad student at MIT, who has a vision for developing clean energy that also means building a fairer, more equitable society. You can read her profile below, along with those of Bobuchi Ken-Opurum, Grace Stanke and Marissa Sisk. 

Their work is their own as individuals, but it also captures the spirit of their generation. It might be cliche, but Gen Z are well-versed in the realities of the climate crisis and the solutions that exist. As they enter the workforce, they see an opportunity to pursue making those solutions a reality. And the US needs them. 

This month, applications are set to open for the American Climate Corps, President Joe Biden’s initiative to train 20,000 young people, at least initially, in high-demand skills for jobs in the clean energy economy. The program is designed to meet the ever-growing demand for workers who can bolster the country’s climate resilience and transform its energy systems as it embraces its clean energy future.

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Compared with older generations, young adults are also more open to the idea of phasing out fossil fuels completely, according to Pew Research. Among US adults between the ages of 18 and 29, 48% are in favor of relying exclusively on renewable energy, compared with 31% overall. Their support for the clean energy transition is evident in the way that young people entering the workforce are centering it in their careers.

“Young talent is supercharging the clean energy movement,” says Dawn Lippert, founder and CEO of Elemental Excelerator, a global climate technology investor and nonprofit impact organization. “These young leaders are shaping policy, developing products and implementing technologies to make their communities cleaner and healthier.”

Not only do young people bring an understanding of why clean energy needs to be prioritized, but they also get the importance of social and environmental justice, says Shalanda Baker, director of the Office of Energy Justice and Equity at the US Department of Energy.

“Young people understand that addressing climate change is not simply a technology problem,” she says. A central part of Baker’s role is to unpick the structural racism and inequality ingrained in the country’s energy system. That inequality has caused energy poverty and major health issues among minority communities. “Young people understand and can reinforce the need to center people in everything we do as we move forward,” she says.

For a long time, Baker says, people have viewed the injustice built into the US energy system as a distraction. It’s one of many issues that have long been sidelined, as well as failing to prioritize ensuring the industry was reflective of the population it was serving. A report looking into the diversity of the US energy workforce published by the National Association of State Energy Officials in 2021 found that only 25% of the country’s energy workers were female.

It’s clear from the impacts of the climate crisis, the slow progress away from fossil fuels, the legacy of environmental racism and the lack of diversity in the industry that the US energy space has been in need of a shakeup for some time. Now it’s getting one.

Not only is young talent pouring in but diverse young talent. Meet four of the young women who through engineering, research, advocacy and leadership are making waves in the world of clean energy.

The affordable energy champion: Bobuchi Ken-Opurum, 29

She’s running pilot projects to bring affordable, reliable clean energy to Americans living in low-income communities.

Growing up in the oil-rich Niger Delta, Bobuchi Ken-Opurum couldn’t help but be aware of the omnipresence of the world’s energy giants. She could see the influence of Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron everywhere in her community in Port Harcourt, a southern city in the River States region of Nigeria. 

Many of her peers aspired to work for these companies, specializing in chemical or petroleum engineering. But from an early age, she was more worried about the damage those industries were inflicting on her world.

Bobuchi Ken-Opurum, director of Research at TEPRI

Bobuchi Ken-Opurum, director of Research at TEPRI.

Zooey Liao/CNET/Photo courtesy of Urban Institute

“We were used to seeing smog and bad air quality — the water is bad,” she says. “There’s so much pollution that was ingrained in our lives.” Her father, a real estate developer and former oil company consultant turned community advocate, purchased a set of encyclopedias. Ken-Opurum used them to immerse herself in the science of climate change.

This goes some way to explain how, rather than finding herself in the employ of an oil giant, she instead ended up over 6,500 miles away from home in Austin, Texas, as director of research at the Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute. Here, the 29-year-old researches how energy poverty affects the state’s most economically disadvantaged communities. She also runs pilot programs that can bring people the clean, reliable and affordable energy they so badly need.

She’s just completed work on a statewide report looking at the experiences of people living in low-income communities across Texas, the second most populous state in the US, and how they struggle to afford energy. What she discovered was that 30% of respondents cut back on food to be able to pay for the energy they needed to keep their medical equipment running or heat their homes. In spite of these difficulties, many people — almost 50% — said they’d be willing to pay more than they do now for clean energy. “While affordability is a priority … people are very interested in clean energy as well,” Ken-Opurum says.

Through this research, she’s exploring solutions to problems. That means looking at solar energy and batteries to help plug the reliability gaps and build neighborhood resilience hubs to prevent people from having to flee the state when they’re hit with power outages or heat waves, for example.

One pilot project funded by an Inflation Reduction Act grant is just getting started in the city of Brownsville, Texas, in partnership with community housing development nonprofit Come Dream Come Build. It involves installing solar panels on a manufacturing plant where affordable, modular, energy-efficient homes are made. The homes, too, are designed to accommodate and make use of solar panels if their owner wants them, but the aim is for the plant to demonstrate and educate people on the benefits of solar, building trust before they buy in.

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Modular houses in Texas.

CDCB

“In South Texas, there’s a lot of experience with predatory solar suppliers,” Ken-Opurum says. People are wary after being duped by companies that ghost or go bust after selling them high-priced panels they can’t maintain or fix, she adds. “We’ve made educational documentation, showing what you need to know and how your home insurance can cover it.”

Another pilot project she’s worked on involves investigating the potential for virtual power plants – networks of decentralized small energy-producing devices and batteries that can pool together to feed energy into the grid — to provide reliable energy to multifamily, low-income homes in Harris and Galveston counties. In times of high-demand, energy companies could source energy from the residents’ batteries or rooftop solar to meet the increased need, earning residents credits that could pay for future energy usage.

“These models work for higher-income households, because they are not necessarily caring about affordability, they just want reliability,” Ken-Opurum says. “But how do we ensure everybody’s taken along?”

This philosophy fuels a side project that Ken-Opurum started as part of her doctoral degree research at Carnegie Mellon University and that is now seeking funding and support to continue: the Re-Housed Climate Decision Support Toolkit. Designed for self-builders in the Global South, the toolkit provides guidance and education so that people can make the best decisions for their homes based on environmental factors to protect against flooding and heat stress.

Ken-Opurum takes inspiration from home. Nigerians are very resilient people, she says. “We have so much ingenuity.” Thinking back to the bottom-up, community-developed solutions she saw in her hometown to counteract flooding, she wanted to empower people living in informal settlements to develop their own energy-efficient, climate-resilient design solutions. It’s in this work that you can see her ideas and passions converge – not only energy, health and construction (which she studied at the undergraduate level) but also justice and equity.

It was while working with Black communities during her doctoral degree program in Pittsburgh that Ken-Opurum first witnessed for herself the impact of social and racial segregation on the quality of schools and residential buildings in the US. She cites the book The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein as critical to her understanding of redlining, a practice in which banks denied loans to people of color, and in helping her develop a community-first framework that prioritizes local needs over potential gentrification.

The example she gives is of installing electric vehicle chargers in a low-income area, which would boost local property values but likely push people out of their neighborhoods. “I’m thinking about how truly we can find something that actually benefits the community rather than just having a new technology installed there,” she says. “How many low-income people actually have electric vehicles?”

People can be particularly resistant to talking about the relationship of race to energy poverty, Ken-Opurum says, instead wanting to focus solely on income. She, on the other hand, doesn’t think it’s possible to separate them. “A lot of the lower-income people are people of color,” she says.

Ken-Opurum’s passion for inclusion is making a tangible difference to TEPRI, says Executive Director Margo Weisz. “Her academic work in energy and equity allows her to approach our work with a lens on how strategies might impact all parts of our community.” 

Particularly in the US South, including many parts of Texas, communities are still reeling from long-running environmental racism issues. Multiple studies have shown that historical redlining has created present-day air pollution disparities in Black, Hispanic and tribal communities through the creation of what the UN has termed “environmental sacrifice zones.”

Often these places will have no tree cover — something that frustrates Ken-Opurum, who supports using nature-based solutions to tackle the climate crisis where possible, especially when it comes to urban planning. A lack of trees means people lack the air-purifying benefits or natural shade created by leafy canopies. “If there’s still the energy issue, at least you can still have a good thermal comfort, and that can improve your health to some degree,” she says.

She would like to see the US think more holistically about its energy issues by prioritizing how it plans and designs built environments to provide people with everything they need from resilience hubs to green roofs covered in vegetation.

“We need to focus on reliability, for sure, and to improve the urban space so that it’s supporting people’s day-to-day lives in their homes and not … have to give up on food to pay their bills,” she says.

The nuclear energy engineer: Grace Stanke, 21

She’s embarking on an engineering and advocacy career after educating the world on nuclear energy as Miss America.

Grace Stanke isn’t your typical pageant queen. After a whirlwind year, in which she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and traveled 280,000 miles while fulfilling a long list of royal engagements as Miss America 2023, she’s just started her first full-time job.

Grace Stanke

Grace Stanke, nuclear engineer.

Zooey Liao/CNET

At 21, Stanke is working as a nuclear engineer and clean energy advocate at Constellation, which operates the biggest fleet of nuclear plants in the US. It’s a far cry from the world of tiaras and sashes, but Stanke feels just as at home visiting a nuclear power plant as she does playing her violin on stage.

For a first job out of college, a nuclear engineering role sounds daunting, but Stanke is prepared. She’ll be doing core design work on pressurized reactors, putting into use the expertise that her faculty adviser Paul Wilson says she developed in safety and design during her studies. She also worked with Constellation during her time as a student, so she’s ready and raring to go.

Stanke was determined to pursue a career in engineering after being inspired by her father, a civil engineer. But her decision to specialize in nuclear engineering was the complete opposite — an act of teenage defiance.

After touring colleges, she raised the possibility of majoring in nuclear engineering. “My dad looks at 16-year-old me and he’s like, ‘Grace, don’t go into nuclear, there’s no future there,'” she says. “Now, to a 16-year-old teenage girl that means go and do exactly what your dad just told you not to do.”

What started out as a rebellion quickly became a passion for Stanke, as she learned more about the role of nuclear power in different aspects of life. It’s nuclear medicine that means her father, as a two-time cancer survivor, is still alive, she says. Plus, there are the environmental benefits of using nuclear energy to power the country amid the transition away from fossil fuels. “It’s an emissions-free form of energy, which as a Gen Z-er… is really important to me,” she says.

Throughout her life, Stanke has visited Glacier National Park three separate times and was deeply saddened by the degradation of the glaciers she witnessed across those different trips. It provided a “come-to-Jesus moment” about the fast-moving progress of the climate crisis, she says.

Stanke is also a firm believer in the potential for nuclear power to provide energy that is reliable and affordable not only in the US, but around the world. She’s been working on a project based in Ghana, where there is interest in building small modular reactors that could provide energy and jobs. “It comes down to making sure that we can transport this energy to the areas that need it, and to continue to build it in safe environments,” she says.

Her senior project, which she cites as her proudest technical achievement so far, was focused on these small modular reactors, which she describes as a “new-hype technology.” The miniaturized nuclear reactors, about the size of three-story house, can be built in a factory and then shipped to a site, which reduces construction costs immensely, she explains. She and her team — all women — combined this with a newer form of enriched uranium known as HALEU fuel to create a more efficient, cost-effective reactor.

Stanke has plenty of experience countering the arguments against nuclear, which include the expense, safety concerns and a potential increase in nuclear waste. But even during the short period she’s been studying and working with nuclear energy, she says she’s witnessed a shift in understanding and attitudes. 

The figures back it up. Research published by Pew in August says that 57% of US adults are now in favor of the government pursuing more nuclear energy projects, up from 43% in 2020. 

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Grace Stanke with a nuclear fuel bundle.

Courtesy of Grace Stanke

As people feel the impact of the climate crisis and see an increase in their monthly utility bills, Stanke thinks they’ve become more interested in accessible, affordable and reliable energy. “A lot of people are really starting to care about … where that power is coming from and they’re ready to talk about nuclear,” she says.

Many people who are wary about nuclear energy have a lot of questions, she adds. She wants to provide the answers that help them decide which side of the fence they fall on.

In her role at Constellation, about 60% of her time will be taken up by engineering, with 40% focused on advocacy efforts — something that’s new for the company, but not for Stanke, who has talked to people all over the country and beyond about the benefits of nuclear energy. As Miss America, Stanke was able to share her knowledge and story with wide audiences, Wilson says.

“Most members of the public don’t associate nuclear energy… with the pageant world, and that dissonance caused people to pay attention,” he says. “Once she had their attention, her down-to-earth stories about her own relationship with nuclear energy were accessible to all audiences and helped humanize the technology.”

Not only did she encourage young girls to consider careers in STEM and engineering, he adds, but she also served as a role model to other members of the nuclear community, showing them the importance of storytelling and communicating about nuclear science and technology.

As well as inspiring others, Stanke also found the experience to be inspirational to her. “Initially I went into it thinking that I would be doing a lot of the talking,” she says. “But at the end of the day, it’s so much more important to be listening.”

Whether she’s interacting with a kindergartner, a member of Congress or someone with a doctoral degree, Stanke believes there’s something to learn from everyone she encounters. From her year mingling with celebrities and politicians, the person she found herself most excited to meet was nuclear advocate Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It was cool, says Stanke, to “listen to her talk about the lessons she learned from her grandfather — a president who’s got an incredible track record for passing bipartisan bills, for working with both sides of the aisle, which is something that we need more than ever nowadays.”

In a field that remains male-dominated, it’s perhaps not surprising that women in nuclear energy are seeking inspiration from those who came before. Wilson says he’s excited to see the knock-on impact of Stanke’s advocacy work on the next generation of young female nuclear engineers.

“Whether it’s a different approach to risk assessment for nuclear safety, novel approaches to staffing and workforce development, or creative ideas for fuel design, increasing the participation of women in nuclear energy will bring more of the brightest into this exciting field,” he says.

Praising Stanke’s leadership capabilities and wide skill set, Wilson says she could take her career in any direction she wants. “For my part, I hope that she keeps one foot in the technical realm of nuclear reactor design and analysis as I think it provides her with a unique perspective and credibility in her advocacy work,” he adds.

This is important to Stanke. She’s determined to give the engineering portion of her role her full energy and attention and to get her hands dirty on the technical side of things. “This is the time to learn,” she adds. “It’s going to be a ton of fun.”

The tribal energy innovator: Marissa Sisk, 24

She’s reconnecting with her heritage while working to secure tribal energy sovereignty.

Marissa Sisk didn’t grow up with a strong connection to her own Muscogee Nation heritage, but as an adult she’s working with tribal communities across the US to help them score access to reliable and affordable renewable energy.

It wasn’t until Sisk, 24, embarked on an environmental science master’s program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, that she found her way back into Indigenous circles. Prior to this, her connection to tribal culture came only through her mother, who grew up on a reservation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but left at 18 after being taught at school that it was taboo to talk about tribal culture. 

Marissa Sisk

Marissa Sisk, founder of Sunstone Energy.

Zooey Liao/CNET

“The only connections I have to the land and the people are just secondhand from what my mother taught me, but even then she’s a bit separated,” Sisk says.

It was Sisk’s father, who died in 2010 following a battle with cancer, who inspired her journey into environmental circles. During his illness, he poured his energy into fundraising for the American Cancer Society. “At the end of the day, I felt like he saved the world, and I wanted to save the world,” Sisk says.

For someone coming from a media studies background as an undergrad, environmental science wasn’t an immediate natural fit for Sisk and neither was Santa Barbara, which was “very wealthy and predominantly white” — not at all like the communities in Oregon and San Diego she grew up in. It took a while for her to click with her master’s, but things fell into place when a fellow student approached her about working on microgrids for tribal communities. Together, they founded Sunstone Energy and got to work.

“I just kind of hit the ground running and we got connected with some pretty powerful people,” Sisk says of the project. She met with the head of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and had hundreds of conversations with people from tribal communities across the country. “People keep asking me, what does your research look like?” Sisk says. “I’m like, there’s no better way than talking with elders, talking with people, collecting what you need to move forward.”

Solar is an ideal solution for many tribal communities due their geographical positioning and the value placed on the sun according to many traditions, Sisk she. “If you overlay maps of different solar potential, like how much sun the US actually gets, there’s a tremendous overlap between tribes, tribal lands and solar,” she says. Microgrids, which are solar plus a battery to provide storage for backup, are even better, as they also solve the reliability problem. 

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Marissa Sisk flipping the switch on a microgrid.

Courtesy of Marissa Sisk

Due to their focus on environmental stewardship, there is also “tremendous alignment for a lot of tribes,” with environmentally friendly renewable energy projects, especially solar, Sisk says.

She also discovered that in spite of the massive influx of funding available for clean energy projects thanks to President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, many tribes didn’t have a project champion — a person responsible for putting all the pieces together to apply for grants.

“There is a severe lack of capacity, severe lack of workforce, there’s not enough people to do this work,” Sisk says. Tribes had to rely on nonprofits, which were scrambling on behalf of multiple applicants. “Everyone feels a sense of urgency to grab the funding, but without someone to do that a lot of tribes are struggling.”

Some tribes have similar needs — especially within regions with similar climates — but there are also many disparities. Tribes in Alaska, for example, are subject to complicated rules governing land jurisdiction, while many people living in Navajo lands in the US Southwest are cut off from the grid altogether. “There’s a ton of issues with how to get electricity, period, and then on top of that renewable energy,” Sisk says.

There are extra layers of difficulty for tribal facilities that don’t qualify for standard rates of electricity, including women’s and family shelters (on a technicality they’re considered discriminatory because they don’t cater to men). This is of particular concern to Sisk, who has worked at a shelter for Native American women and understands their vulnerability.

The tool she and her Sunstone Energy team have created takes away the heavy lifting of applying for funding by automatically calculating the specs of implementing a microgrid on tribal land. This eliminates the time and expense of conducting a feasibility study, as well as having to outsource to nontribal people, which often makes the process inaccessible to communities. With the tool, they can quickly and easily navigate the process by themselves.

It’s an important step in securing energy sovereignty for tribal communities, which Sisk describes as “tribes governing their own energy usage.” Tribes are often exploited by utility monopolies and are forced to pay obscenely high prices for their energy, she says. But as sovereign entities, they should have the right to choose how they get their energy and how they pay for it — whether that be going totally off grid or simply having more control over where they buy from. With the influx of IRA funding, now is the time for this to happen.

“They don’t have to go all the way off grid,” Sisk says. “That’s a lot to maintain and operate.” But even small projects like microgrids can provide tribes with resiliency.

Sunstone is running a couple of pilot projects, including a feasibility assessment with a domestic violence shelter for the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians in California. After beginning work, Sisk realized it was a partner shelter to the one she worked in, which she describes as “a full-circle moment.”

The master’s project is supposed to be a for-profit business, but Sisk’s ultimate goal is to make Sunstone’s tool publicly available by the time she graduates. “This is a service that I believe should be free or cheap to tribes,” she says. “It gives them more autonomy and sovereignty.”

As she finishes up her master’s, she’s also started working as a tribal energy consultant with Indigenous-led and Pueblo women-operated organization Sovereign Energy, where she supports tribes across the Southwest as they establish renewable energy projects. After graduation, she’ll go full time.

Working with other tribal women is a priority for Sisk. Last summer, she also worked with woman-owned renewables project developer GC Green on developing community benefits plans, which forces companies wanting to build renewable projects on tribal lands to consider the impact on the community.

“A lot of the people in the energy industry are men who want to capitalize off of [tribal clean energy projects],” she says. “A lot of the women are going, no, this is a backbone for the community to support people.”

Throughout this entire process, Sisk has felt a sense of reconnection, which has reinforced her own sense of identity. “It’s beautiful to be taken in by this tribal energy community, which is its own separate industry, but to be accepted like a family,” she says. 

She also thinks it’s part of a wider trend of younger people coming back to Native American culture after their elders were pushed away by the residential schools program designed to separate them from their communities. “It feels really good to bridge that gap and relearn some of the things that a lot of people like me should have learned when we were younger, but never had the chance,” Sisk says.

The energy-focused environmental hacker: Sanjana Paul, 26

She’s applying engineering prowess to resolving the conflicts slowing down the clean energy transition.

When it comes to applying science, technology and politics to fighting the climate crisis, Sanjana Paul can claim to have done all three and more, and she’s only 26. Right now, the graduate student at MIT is working on resolving the conflicts that are causing major roadblocks in the US clean energy transition, but it’s been a remarkable, if nonlinear, path that led her here.

Paul was homeschooled as a child and teen, and she developed a wide range of scientific interests. There were phases when she thought she might be a botanist or a geologist, but by the time she applied to college, she thought she might be a lab physicist.

Sanjana Paul

Sanjana Paul, executive director of Earth Hacks.

Zooey Liao/CNET/Photo courtesy of NASA Langley Research Center

Through it all, she felt that STEM was the right fit for her. “I didn’t face the same gendered pressures that my peers did,” she says. Still, she was wary of engineering as a field — mainly because she didn’t actually know any engineers.

Paul credits a National Geographic article about Rainforest Connection, an organization that uses sensors to monitor illegal logging and poaching, for inspiring her change of heart. She ended up double majoring in electrical engineering and physics.

“I went into an electrical engineering degree saying that I’m going to be the person who builds the infrastructure for climate science, because I think this climate change thing is … probably the most important issue we’ve ever faced,” she says.

This passion for solving the most critical problems in the most practical of ways is perhaps the unifying theme of Paul’s career so far. While she was at engineering school, she fell in love with using sensors and lasers for monitoring air quality, but hated how divorced the “ivory tower” research she was doing felt from the real world. 

During a summer internship with Conservation X Labs, which works on applying technology to prevent species extinction, she came up with the idea for Earth Hacks, an organization she cofounded and still runs to this day. As an engineering student she’d participated in hackathons as a way to learn new skills and hang out with friends. But she says she became depressed with how heavily corporate they often felt. “I was like, I thought that this was supposed to be open source and cool — why is Lockheed Martin here?”

Instead of focusing on obtuse computer science problems, she saw an opportunity to harness the hackathon model as a form of climate action. What began with a single hackathon at the Museum of Virginia — “a night at the museum,” as Paul calls it — blossomed into a movement. Earth Hacks has now worked with over 4,000 students from across the globe who have participated in more than 60 hackathons.

Throughout this time, students have tackled problems from conservation to urban heat islands to the energy transition. While some interesting spinout projects have emerged from the program, Paul defines the success of Earth Hacks in her own terms.

It’s not about launching startups, but rather “transformative environmental education [and] a fundamental shift in how students see themselves in relation to working on climate issues. She calls it “an opportunity multiplier.”

“We want computer science students who did not care about anything to come to a hackathon and suddenly have a huge interest in air quality because the sky turned red where they lived one day,” she says.

After graduating, Paul went on to apply her engineering skills at NASA’s Atmospheric Science Data Center. She monitored noise in the environmental data gathered by the Calypso satellite for climate-related infrastructure planning. At first, she says, it was her “dream job.” But over time, while documenting one large-scale tragedy after another — including the 2020 Australian bushfires and Hurricane Dorian, which struck the Bahamas and the US South Atlantic coast in 2019 — a sense of powerlessness set in.

“I just kind of started to feel like I was passively monitoring just mass death, which sounds very bleak,” Paul says. She wanted to come back down to Earth, so she left NASA to pursue her master’s at MIT where she hoped to work on more localized environmental sensing. 

In doing so, she came face to face with the reality that we already have a clear understanding of what was causing the problems she was monitoring (the oil and gas industry) and the solution (the transition to renewables). 

It prompted a reckoning with where she should be focusing her efforts. She realized, she says, “I have to have my own energy transition, and have to switch from environmental sensing into energy.”

As an engineer, Paul is trained in root cause analysis, and when she examined what was broken in the circuit of tackling the climate crisis, it wasn’t due to a lack of technological solutions. Heat pumps, solar panels and wind turbines already exist. The question was, why weren’t they being deployed?

She recognized that there was a process problem within the energy transition, and found a supervisor at MIT, Larry Susskind, who was already working on solving it. Some might be intimidated by making the switch from engineering into applied social sciences, but not Paul. Susskind sees her as “a wonderful example of homeschooling,” able to independently consume information from many different sources to learn about a new subject from scratch.

Susskind’s work has focused on identifying the reasons that in spite of successful funding and regulatory approval, clean energy projects don’t end up being built. The most common answer is conflict with local communities, which developers consistently fail to consult and involve in the planning process. It’s this knotty issue that Paul is working to help him solve.

It’s not that communities are always opposed to clean energy, or even having projects built in their backyards, she says. It’s usually a lack of care, recognition and respect for local ecosystems, property prices or other factors that local people care about. “Because of this intense focus on techno-solutionism, as opposed to the more difficult, more emotionally driven social problems, they don’t get the attention that they need,” Paul says.

Her work on Susskind’s team involves spinning up renewable energy clinics that can be used for resolving these conflicts so that more clean energy projects get the final go-ahead. She’s also been instrumental in building a course to teach students about renewable energy conflict, as well as creating a MOOC — a massive open online course that anyone in the world can access for free. 

She’s now working on establishing mechanisms such as community benefit agreements that are crucial in making the clean energy transition a reality — more crucial, she argues, than making a solar panel 2% more efficient. 

Paul, who as well as running Earth Hacks, studying for her master’s and working on Susskind’s team, is also involved in negotiating a green new deal for Cambridge and efforts to decarbonize the MIT campus, is clearly driven by a sense of urgency. “We needed to be doing this before I was born,” she says. “This never should have happened.”

Paul’s work is also suffused with dedication to environmental justice. She takes every opportunity to talk about climate, including to her tattoo artist as she adds to her collection of climate-related tattoos. At the same time as she sees a need to build a new energy system, she recognizes that there is a chance to rebuild the social fabric of the US. “Collective solutions are kind of the way to go,” she says.

Opportunity knocks

There’s something about being a woman in the male-dominated energy and engineering industries that can bond young women coming into this space not just to their peers, but to those who came before them.

Paul cites the environmental justice campaigner Sharon Lavigne as a major inspiration. “The intergenerational aspect of it is so powerful, and I’m really grateful for people who have been in the space for a long time,” she says.

The sense of being inspired flows both ways, with older generations excited to see what the fresh crop of young women bringing ideas and passion into this space can do to shake things up. The need for their talents is more crucial than it’s ever been. Lippert points to LinkedIn’s 2023 Global Green skills report that shows we need two times as many people working in the climate space as we do today. “Any job can be a climate job,” she says.

The one thing Baker would like young people entering the energy industry to prioritize is centering communities. “At the DOE, we believe that not only are those closest to the problem also closest to the solution, but they have more investment in finding the solution,” she says.

To achieve the just and equitable transition to clean energy that serves the entirety of the population, the Biden administration wants the industry to be reflective of US demographics — including young women, but also youth who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. “We want to ensure that we build a diverse technology workforce and develop the next generation of scientists,” Baker says.

She sees historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions as critical to developing the talent pipeline that will increase diversity. There are many newly available opportunities in this space up for grabs, including $24.7 million in financial assistance grants for seven minority-serving institutions. 

When the American Climate Corps opens for applications later this month, thousands more young people across the US will have the chance to join the likes of Sisk, Paul, Stanke and Ken-Opurum and their peers in powering the country’s transition to clean and renewable energy sources.

“We need young people to carry the torch in the energy workforce,” Baker says. With so much at stake in terms of rapid climate breakdown, it’s a big opportunity to pursue meaning, purpose and job security in a world where little is certain and everything’s to play for.


Visual Designer | Zooey Liao

Video | Chris Pavey, John Kim, Andy Altman

Senior Project Manager | Danielle Ramirez

Director of Content | Jonathan Skillings

Editor | Corinne Reichert

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