This is the first in a series of stories about Clean Energy Champions—real people who are taking action to support or join the transition to a clean energy economy. Their stories illustrate the many ways you, too, can become a Clean Energy Champion.
As a member of the clean energy workforce, Rukmani Vijayaraghavan is on a mission to make sure federal funding for renewable energy technology innovations reaches more than just the researchers and entrepreneurs who’ve had access to it in the past. Underrepresented groups are her target, and she’s figuring out how DOE can attract the most diverse pool of talent this nation has ever seen.
But Vijayaraghavan knows that DOE must strengthen trust with the Americans the agency is working to include.
“As we try to implement our justice and equity goals and reach out to underrepresented communities, there’s a lot of skepticism about how serious DOE is about this commitment,” she says. “There’s a long history of the federal government not being responsive to the needs of underserved communities, but things are really changing. There are real people at DOE who are going way beyond their actual job descriptions to make sure Justice40 becomes reality.”
That work involves getting feedback from energy justice nonprofits, minority-serving institutions, and other stakeholders about how DOE can be more inclusive in its funding opportunities. Vijayaraghavan helped write the public request for information to obtain that insight. Rethinking how the Energy Department incentivizes the cutting edge of technology development, she also helped design the $2.5 million Inclusive Energy Innovation Prize to break down barriers for innovators who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
“Having the opportunity to radically rethink what and whom we should be funding to meet our clean energy mission and being able to shape that on the ground floor is very motivating,” she says.
Clean En∙er∙gy Cham∙pi∙on
/klēn/ /ˈenərjē/ /ˈCHampēən/
1. A person or group that takes action to support or join the transition to a renewable energy economy, with the knowledge that reducing carbon emissions provides daily benefits to every American so they can live happy and healthy lives.
But like most people’s career paths, Vijayaraghavan’s wasn’t a straight line. She studied astronomy and astrophysics before coming to Washington, DC, to serve as an American Institute of Physics Congressional Science Fellow. She joined DOE in 2019 as an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow in the Water Power Technologies Office, where today she is a federal employee, helping awardees move marine energy and hydropower technologies closer to market. After earning her doctorate she honed her community outreach skills, running a camp called Girls Exploring the Universe and serving on the board of 500 Women Scientists, advocating for more women in STEM fields.
In her free time, she volunteers with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute to recruit new fellows and review their applications. She describes the fellowship experience there as “a combination crash course in the clean energy system and about building community in the clean energy space, bringing in perspective of a just and equitable transition.”
As a Clean Energy Champion, Vijayaraghavan is clearly going places, but she’s not usually driving to them: She fuels her car only twice a year to keep emissions low, relying mostly on public transit, and vows her next car will be an electric vehicle.
Meanwhile, Vijayaraghavan is structuring new funding programs that focus on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. It’s the best way to get “exposed to the hundreds of thousands of ideas out there,” she says.
“EERE genuinely cares about making sure we support and fund the communities and people who haven’t always been part of the clean energy transition,” she adds. “The agency recognizes that the clean energy mission isn’t just about technology research and development; it’s also about funding people and innovation networks to ensure the transition to renewable energy is successful and that everyone can see themselves as part of it.”