Former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary greets contestants of the Solar Car Challenge Competition in 1995. O’Leary was the first Energy Secretary to link energy policy decisions to the health and quality of the environment. | Photo by Warren Gretz, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Black History Month celebrates the many vital contributions African Americans have made in America’s history.  Today, we’re highlighting African Americans who have helped advance energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

We’re especially proud of Hazel O’Leary, who took her place among accomplished African American energy innovators in 1993, when she was selected as the seventh Energy Secretary and the first African American to hold the position.  Under her leadership, our department took the first meaningful steps towards making energy efficiency and renewable energy one of the essential aspects of today’s American energy portfolio.

O’Leary initiated many policy changes that directly led to advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy.  She was the first Energy Secretary to link energy policy decisions to the health and quality of the environment.  Under her leadership, the Energy Department formed partnerships with non-profit organizations and utilities to accelerate commercialization of advanced energy-efficient appliances.  O’Leary increased funding requests from the Energy Department for energy efficiency and renewable energy research to advance technologies such as those for buildings, vehicles, wind, and solar. She also set up the first system of measuring successes, such as energy jobs created, energy saved, and pollution avoided to demonstrate return on taxpayer investment.

In addition, Secretary O’Leary was a strong advocate for establishing a long-term vision that would leave a lasting impact after she left government service.  She released the Energy Department’s first comprehensive Strategic Plan, which advocated for sustainable energy technologies that emphasized energy efficiency, renewable sources, and the economic use of fossil fuels.

Following her tenure at the Energy Department, O’Leary later served as the President of Fisk University from 2004-2012.  Fisk, a historical black university originally founded in 1866, is the oldest institution of higher learning in Nashville, Tennessee. 

O'Leary is currently one of the Ambassadors for the Minorities in Energy Initiative, which is guided by the Department of Energy’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity.  The Initiative seeks to create a substantive, sustainable model that connects diverse stakeholders together to address challenges and opportunities for minority engagement in energy economic participation, STEM education, and climate change.  Learn more: