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 email@example.com. Canary thanks GAF Energy for its support of this column.
Julie Blunden: A renewable energy expert who knows how to connect the dots
Julie Blunden currently sits on the boards of Plus Power, New Energy Nexus, American Battery Technology Company and ZincFive, Inc. Blunden previously held executive positions at EVgo, SunEdison, SunPower Corporation, Kema Labs and Green Mountain Power after spending a decade at AES. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.
1. How did you end up on this career path?
My career in renewable energy started in eighth grade with a science teacher who installed solar panels on people’s houses in the summer to supplement his teacher’s salary. Once I realized that in northeast Ohio, there was an alternative to acidifying lakes and questionable nuclear-plant safety, I could not understand why we didn’t have solar panels and wind turbines everywhere. So I spent my high school and college years trying to figure out everything I could about the energy sector and renewables specifically.
I had an internship at AES while I was still in college and ended up going there after college. I spent a total of about 10 years there. It was really central to my understanding of the power industry. Every year, I would work in the strategy meeting to prepare the question about when AES would get into renewables, and every year the answer was a few years from now. Finally, after going to business school, I joined Green Mountain Power — at that point, the second-largest utility in Vermont and the first entity in competitive retail markets to offer renewable power. That was my great leap into the renewables industry, which I’d been aching for since I was 13.
2. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
When I was an intern, I was considering a few different job offers, one of which was at AES. I spoke with Denis Hayes and he said, “You should go work for Roger Sant.” He did not say, “You should go work for AES.” His advice was to know who you’re going to be working with, and if it is a wonderful person who’s doing good things, even if they’re tough, go for it — and that I should take advantage of an incredible opportunity with a young company that needs lots of help as it grows really quickly. And he was right. I got ridiculous amounts of responsibility and experience as an intern at 20, and then afterward from ages 22 to 30.
3. What is a barrier you faced, and how did you overcome it?
In college, I was usually the only female in my engineering classes. We had no female faculty. We had no female administration. But that engineering major was unbelievably valuable because it let me have the competence to listen to our contractors and advisers in building power plants and other projects. When you’re faced with barriers, being fully loaded with all the data you can get your hands on and the capability to communicate it clearly is very important. That alone does not assure success, but it leads you in that direction. Find other voices to join you and create momentum for both political and community success.
4. What do you think are the most exciting new career opportunities in climatetech?
We are about to build a huge number of solar, wind and battery power plants. It is extraordinary — 1.4 terawatts of capacity in the queue, overwhelmingly solar, wind and battery, 40% larger than the entire installed base in the United States. We are in the decade of deployment. Whether you’re interested in manufacturing, development, the engineering side or the commercial side, this is the build, build, build decade, as fast as humanly possible, so there are lots of opportunities.
5. What is your superpower?
I connect dots. I see consequences and facilitate communication between folks who might otherwise be siloed. Identifying the streams of information, moving them around and focusing them where I think they need to go is one of the things I do really well. I love bringing that skill to my board work because I can help each of the companies that I’m working with have better peripheral vision about what’s happening upstream, downstream or abutting them, and how that influences their strategic view going forward.
Nidhi Thakar has joined long-duration energy storage technology developer Form Energy as VP of policy and regulatory. Thakar was previously with Portland General Electric and, before that, the California Public Utilities Commission.
Sophie Fallon, previously with Onyx Renewable Partners, is now VP of business and project development at 42 Renewables, a developer of distributed generation in partnership with Fengate Asset Management.
Leah Thomas is an environmental advocate, founder of the nonprofit Intersectional Environmentalist platform and the author of a recently published book with the same name. In a fascinating photo essay in Vogue, she recenters the focus on the often-unsung Black women who have played large and small parts in environmental advocacy in America. Thomas says: “We’ve always been a part of environmental history, but seldom have our stories told and amplified.”
An inspiring artist
Lyubov Mykhailivna Panchenko (1938–2022) was a Ukrainian artist and fashion designer who ardently supported and breathed new life into traditional Ukrainian folk-art forms, even when these cultural touchstones were discouraged during the era of Soviet rule. She created lush mixed-media collages incorporating garment fabrics and other textiles. At the age of 84, Panchenko died in Bucha, Ukraine earlier this year in the aftermath of the Russian invasion.
Ukrainian artist Lyubov Panchenko died at 85 after a month of hunger in Bucha. RIP pic.twitter.com/DlSCSgan2E— #WOMENSART (@womensart1) May 1, 2022
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