Clean energy is a complex field filled with endless twists and turns — from local policy and technical challenges all the way down to the varying interpretations of “clean energy” as a concept. For those that are new to it (like I am), this industry can be a challenging one to navigate.
At Groundswell, I work with a team to manage community solar projects and partnerships. We partner with electric utilities, community partners, lawmakers, and neighbors to make equitable clean energy access a reality. Over the summer, I became increasingly interested in figuring out how our work fits within the industry and what the future of clean energy might look like in coming years. However, doing this myself was challenging. So, I started looking for a group that wanted to build knowledge together.
Enter CELI, the Clean Energy Leadership Institute. For the last three months, I’ve been attending a weekly seminar through the CELI Fellowship, which is available for young professionals in D.C. and San Francisco. Covering a wide swath of topics from regulation and advocacy to the future of our planet, the seminars invite questions and discussion that add rich context to our work in clean energy.
Here are three of the most important things I’ve grown to understand through the fellowship:
We have to modernize our grid.
Our energy grid is OLD, and its management is complicated. In the U.S., many of the poles, wires, and other equipment that comprise our energy transmission and distribution network are nearing 50 years old. As equipment wears down, it is a challenge to plan for and manage upgrades, especially as energy demand continues to increase across the nation. This may sound like an issue that’s removed from our daily lives, but we all rely on consistent energy access. When it’s not available—for example, power outages during a thunderstorm—we all feel it.
The role of utilities is in flux.
Decentralizing energy generation is a huge point of contention. One element of the debate is the changing role of electric utilities, which manage the country’s electric grids and have long provided a public service: consistent and reliable access to electricity. Historically, containing power plants, transmission and distribution systems, and end users all within the same network allowed the utility to manage processes in an organized, centralized fashion. This system made sense when electricity primarily came from oil and gas sources, which are generally processed at large power plants. Communities also used less energy and were far less complex.
Now that energy sources are more diverse and we have greater, more varied energy needs, utilities are dealing with complicated challenges. For example, solar energy systems can be installed on homes and businesses, allowing consumers to reduce reliance on traditional sources of energy and take more control of energy prices. Because of this, public utilities are now competing with these private sources of energy generation, also called distributed generation. And yet, distributed generation systems still connect back to the publicly-owned grid in some cities, creating major questions: what is the present-day responsibility of utilities to provide the public service of reliable electricity? And should they remain centralized, handling all elements of the energy grid, or change their model?
Connectedness matters: turn “them” into “we.” Building relationships can transform industries and constituents into communities. CELI has provided a valuable pathway to building community with young professionals in my industry, whether through discussing the future of electricity or sitting around playing 80’s hits on the guitar. The CELI fellowship has been an opportunity to understand various angles of the clean energy industry as well as to connect with the intelligent, driven, and vibrant people that push it forward.
Intentionally building community can often redirect solutions from being prescriptive towards being supportive and adaptive. As I’ve learned about various sides of the energy industry at CELI, the value of working at an organization like Groundswell has continued to reveal itself. When our team designs a project, we work in partnership with neighbors and community leaders on clean energy solutions that will benefit people for years to come. This may be more work than installing a prescriptive system, but its worth is proven tenfold: leveraging our power together is one of the keys to creative, lasting transformation. Our team synthesizes the regulatory, political, financial, and technical sides of the energy equation in order to serve our communities across the country, and the direct relationships we cultivate enable us to always keep this goal in sight.