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Charging Up: A chat with Becca Jones-Albertus, director of DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office
Canary Media’s Charging Up column chronicles gender diversity in the climatetech sector. Part one is a short Q&A with an industry role model about their career path. Part two features updates on career transitions. Please send feedback and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Becca Jones-Albertus: An engineer with a flair for solar energy
Becca Jones-Albertus is the director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
How did you end up on this career path?
In second grade, we studied the impact of rainforest loss on the environment, and that pretty much made me an environmentalist overnight. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I started making our home as environmentally friendly as possible, and it motivated me to start thinking about potential careers on that front. I really enjoyed math and engineering, so I thought maybe I would pursue environmental engineering, but the more I learned about it, the more I realized a lot of environmental engineers were focused on remediation of the problems our way of life was causing. I wanted to work to avoid those harms in the first place, which got me interested in clean energy, and of course, that led me to solar because it is the greatest renewable resource we have.
At that time, solar energy made up only a small fraction of our electricity supply and was prohibitively expensive. I wanted to become a researcher to help develop cheaper and more efficient solar panels, so I went on to get a doctorate. I then worked at a startup that was developing very high-efficiency solar cells for the concentrating photovoltaic industry. As the cost of solar technology plummeted, concentrating PV became less promising as a market segment. This prompted me to take a broader perspective on solar-related challenges, and that led me to the Department of Energy, where I could address overarching issues and opportunities in solar energy technology and deployment. I’ve spent nearly a decade at the DOE in various roles, and it’s been a lot of fun.
How has your role changed since the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year?
The IRA has been so transformative, especially in providing long-term incentives. It has put us on an even faster track for deployment, so there is more urgency to address barriers like interconnection queues, transmission challenges and the need to grow a workforce. I have been thinking a lot about how we can accelerate our work in that space.
Another big piece that changed with the IRA is we now have an effective industrial policy to support the manufacturing of solar, wind and battery products in the U.S. While we had a very small domestic manufacturing industry before, in another two to three years, we could find that we’re making a very large share of the solar products we install in this country here at home. So it’s a really exciting time.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
One crucial lesson, especially early in my career, was to identify my strengths and passions, and then figure out how to apply them to solar. When I was first getting interested in solar, I called up someone I knew who worked in the field asking for recommendations about what to major in in college. Their advice was to pursue my passion because I could always work on solar as a researcher, a lawyer or an HR professional, for example.
I didn’t take that advice at the time and ended up majoring in electrical engineering, but I’ve reflected on that my whole career and it does ring very true — we can have the greatest impact if we are passionate about what we do.
What is a barrier you faced, and how did you overcome it?
In one instance, when I came in to lead a particular group, I found that it had some very bad relationships with some key partners, and those relationships were in fact undermining a lot of the work that we wanted to get done. So I had to spend a lot of time meeting with the partners and hearing their comments and opinions about the things that we had done wrong in the past and really think about how we could develop processes and put them in place to break those same patterns. That involved changing the culture and building trust to demonstrate a commitment to building strong and productive relationships with partners.
What do you think are some interesting, overlooked career opportunities in climatetech?
A near-term opportunity is in decarbonizing our electricity system, and then electrifying cars and other systems. The workforce involved in transforming the grid in many cases is in short supply — electrical engineers, people who focus on power systems, and data scientists, as well, who are working on the technical aspects of how we operate a modernized grid, for example. We also need policy and legal experts, and lawyers who can work on evolving energy markets and policy for this completely different grid. I think that that’s where some of the most exciting and important work is to come.
What is your superpower?
An ability to identify big goals and separate them from the strategies that can be taken to get there. Very often, it is easy to mix the two together or to see the strategy as the goal itself and that can keep us from being as efficient as we can be.
Let’s say two people are going to go on vacation together and one is sure that the goal for their vacation is to go to the beach and the other one is sure that the goal is to go camping in the mountains. I would say the big-picture goal is probably to have fun, maybe to go somewhere new. If you step up to the bigger-picture goals, suddenly there are lots of other strategies that can be brainstormed. And maybe those two people find out that actually, they would both also really enjoy going to visit the monuments in Washington, D.C., so they identify that strategy and are able to move forward together. That’s an example of how it is useful for conflict resolution, but I find it also incredibly useful when barriers come up, as you’re marching down a path and figuring out alternative courses forward or even just trying to understand as an organization if you’re moving down the most effective paths and getting to your higher and larger goals.
Kristina Lund has been appointed president of Pattern Energy Group, one of the larger providers of renewable energy and transmission infrastructure. Lund brings more than 20 years of leadership experience to Pattern, including 17 years with AES Corporation. Most recently, Lund served as the president and CEO of AES Indiana and AES Ohio, where she led the U.S. utilities senior leadership team.
Kristina Peterson is now an independent director at Electriq Power, a maker of residential battery systems and energy monitoring software. Peterson also serves as an independent director on the boards of Blink Charging, MEI and Invinity Energy.
Patricia D’Costa is now energy strategic negotiator at Google. D’Costa was previously with ICF.
Andrea Marpillero-Colomina, the sustainable communities program director at GreenLatinos, has been appointed to U.S. Transportation Secretary Buttigieg’s Advisory Committee on Transportation Equity. GreenLatinos works to bring attention to the environmental justice and climate justice needs of the Latino community across the country.
For the record
According to the latest data from the Department of Energy’s 2023 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, jobs in solar energy increased in the largest number of counties of any electric power generation technology, growing in 74 percent of them. Overall, solar jobs exist in 79 percent of the country’s counties, and it is the only electric power technology to employ more than 10,000 workers in any single county.
Check it out
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act, Canary Media dedicated last week to covering some of the most significant impacts of the legislation in its first year. We also hosted a recorded conversation with David Crane, the DOE’s Under Secretary for Infrastructure. Get caught up here.