“We will meet the energy challenges of the 21st century—including the threat of climate change—by harnessing all the energy, talents, and innovative spirit of the workforce,” said Dr. Robert Marlay, Wind Energy Technologies Office Director at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency (EERE). “On this day and every day, DOE is committed to highlighting the contributions women make to energy innovation and the participation of women and girls in the energy sector.”
In observance of International Women’s Day, five women working in diverse wind energy roles at national laboratories funded by DOE’s Wind Energy Technologies Office discuss the paths that led them to their work. They also share their advice for other women interested in working in wind energy and perspectives on what the wind and renewable energy industries can do to attract and retain women employees.
The Path to Wind Energy
These women followed different paths to careers in wind energy—some direct and focused, others a bit more winding. Some journeys started with an interest in wind as a clean energy source that can help mitigate climate change and create a healthier planet, while others came along a fossil fuel or even non-energy route. While the path to a career in wind energy is not always straight, intellectual curiosity is a key driver.
Yi Guo, senior mechanical engineering scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL): In my childhood in China’s Shanxi province, a hub for coal energy, most of my family worked in the coal industry. My town was heavily polluted. One of my grandfathers had chronic lung disease from working in coal mines for many years, and my other grandfather had a severe spine injury from a mining accident. Because of that, I wanted to go into clean energy so I could make a positive change in the world.
Lucy Pao, professor and control-systems researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder: I discovered my interest in wind power through Katie Johnson, one of my former doctoral students. Katie had a full fellowship as a doctoral student. I encouraged her to focus her research on what she was most passionate about, and she said, “I want to work on the control of wind turbines.” At the time, I hadn’t done any work in wind energy, but through her work Katie made connections at NREL and got me involved in wind energy, and this is now the dominant application area that my research group works in. Katie is now a professor at the Colorado School of Mines with a joint appointment at NREL and we still collaborate on multiple wind energy research projects.
Latha Sethuraman, electrical engineering researcher at NREL: I worked in the oil and gas industry in India early in my career but was attracted to the innovation opportunities in renewable energy. I thought, “How can I enter this pioneering field that people are starting to embrace?” I enrolled in the Sustainable Energy Systems program at the University of Edinburgh, where one of my professors—whose research focused on wind energy—thought I would make a great researcher. Through him, I started researching floating wind turbines, and I never looked back.
Chitra Sivaraman, data integration team lead at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL): I got my bachelor’s degree in economics and initially worked in finance. I was working for an institution where I had to use a software I didn’t like, and I kept thinking, “How can I fix this?” I started taking computer science classes and that got me into the field of software engineering. Later, I joined PNNL as an intern to help with software development and after a few years, I was leading the software development and data management facility teams for the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement program. Because of that work, the team working on the Wind Energy Technologies Office’s Atmosphere to Electrons initiative asked me if I could also help manage wind energy data.
Heidi Tinnesand, mechanical engineering researcher at NREL: Converting a force of nature into a source of power motivated me to pursue a career in wind energy. I’ve always been interested in wind. I learned to sail and fly planes, and I’ve always been mesmerized by this powerful force and its possibilities.
Networking and Persistence are Key
According to a 2019 NREL report, employment in the U.S. wind industry increased 32% from 2015 to 2016—yet, in 2019, women made up only 25% of the wind energy workforce and only 13% of those were wind energy research scientists and engineers. The women in this post suggest addressing that gap means encouraging women interested in wind and renewable energy careers to form and nurture professional relationships, be open to different roles and experiences, and be persistent in searching for the right opportunity.
Yi: I learned about NREL in the third year of my doctoral program and monitored NREL’s job postings until the right position became available. Trust yourself and be persistent. Eventually you’ll overcome obstacles you thought you couldn’t, and you’ll say, “That wasn’t so hard.” Or maybe, “That was hard, but I did it.”
Lucy: If you’re really passionate about working in a certain area, you have to be persistent about it. And if you can stay positive, have a sense of humor, and see things from other people’s point of view, you’ll have a better experience—which will help you stay persistent.
Latha: Use social media channels like LinkedIn and attend conferences to network with other women in wind energy.
Chitra: Women should follow their curiosity. Very often, we think of wind energy as engineering and technician jobs, but my role in this field is to manage data, and that work can apply across many industries.
Heidi: Connect with organizations that serve women in wind, such as Women in Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy. If you’re new to the industry and don’t know anyone, it's useful to be around like-minded people. And when you meet other women in wind energy, you’ll find we’re supportive of getting more women into our field.
Leading Others to Wind Energy
The theme of International Women’s Day 2021 is “Choose to Challenge.” In the spirit of this theme, the interviewees challenge educators and leaders to do their part to increase women’s participation in wind and renewable energy. They emphasized the need to improve the school-to-career pipeline for female students, amplify women’s contributions to wind energy, and create a supportive work environment that will help all workers achieve their potential.
Yi: I think there is sometimes a perception that women’s contributions are less valuable. But, for example, women often have better communication skills. That can be a great advantage in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, as it helps teams work together and stay on the same page.
Lucy: Starting in grade school, I think girls get impressions about their abilities that affect their academic and career choices later. From that young age, educators and mentors must encourage girls, make them aware of career possibilities, and keep them interested and motivated throughout middle school, high school, and college.
Latha: Industry leaders need to make people aware of the work women are doing in wind and renewable energy. Reward workers based on their results and give workers the freedom to explore new research areas and find innovative ways to solve problems. That will help employees be independent and develop the leadership skills they need to grow in their careers—regardless of their gender.
Chitra: It’s important to provide opportunities for young women to gain real-world work experience while they are still in school. I have six high school students and undergraduate interns—three of whom are young women—working with my team right now. They don’t need any software development experience to work with us; they just need to be open to learning new things. The experience helps them decide whether this type of work is the right fit for them.
Heidi: A great opportunity for female students to gain valuable wind energy experience is the DOE Collegiate Wind Competition. Students in the competition design, build, and test a wind turbine, develop a wind project plan based on market and siting considerations, conduct outreach in their communities, and engage with industry professionals. It’s such an enriching experience, and several Competition alumni have gone on to work in the wind industry after graduating.
DOE supports women in energy in numerous ways, including through the U.S. Clean Energy Education & Empowerment (C3E) Initiative. C3E aims to recruit, retain, recognize, and advance women in the field through its network of thousands of professional women sharing stories, lessons learned, and career opportunities. C3E also showcases the accomplishments of women as exemplars.
As a founding C3E Ambassador, Dr. Marlay notes that he has seen the stunning contributions of countless women professionals and rising leaders.
“The more you look, the more you see,” Marlay said, “and the more you realize that the nation’s energy and climate goals will be realized much sooner when we harness the dedication, talent, and innovative spirit of women in the workforce.”
Read more about DOE’s efforts to increase diversity through the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity. To learn more about how DOE is supporting women in energy fields, visit the Women in Energy website.