Inspired by a superhero, Shawn Jones became a climatetech engineer

Canary talks to BlueWave’s head of storage development about big batteries, climate justice and bringing more people of color into clean energy.

A smiling Black man in a blue jacket and blue-and-red checked shirt
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Shawn Jones is the managing director of storage development at BlueWave, a leading Boston-based solar and energy storage developer and certified B Corp. He is also a co-chair of the storage and new technologies committee at Northeast Energy and Commerce Association. We sat down (virtually) to talk about his career, the storage solutions he is working on and why he’s so excited for the future of the industry. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Maria Virginia Olano: Can you describe the work you do at BlueWave?

Shawn Jones: I work on developing stand-alone storage solutions. That means assets that are not connected to solar or wind but to the grid, in order to provide resiliency — non-wire alternatives to transmission-scale infrastructure. We work on long-duration storage, batteries and other forms of technologies from 5 megawatts up to 250 megawatts.

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Olano: What’s one project you’re really excited about?

Jones: We’re focusing on storage that’s connected to transmission lines. With so much solar and wind coming online, we want to be able to facilitate the delivery of those energy sources. Our batteries are designed to store the energy from renewable sources when it is not being used so we can deliver it back into the grid at peak times. 

We are using primarily lithium batteries, but we’re looking at zinc batteries and other long-duration storage solutions too. We’re also considering the potential for thermal energy storage, so we’re pretty technology-agnostic. 

Olano: What are some barriers to being able to scale this solution?

Jones: Having clear market signals on how to finance these projects is very important. Each region has different policy and regulatory standards, so that makes it harder. In California, for example, there is a lot of resiliency planning because of the need to prevent fires, so there are financial incentives for customers who have batteries that can be tapped into in times of need. We don’t have that in the Northeast, where so many of the power plants are supported by natural gas. But the entire country is looking to decarbonize the grid, and there will be more of a need for these projects. Without market certainty, a lot of our projects are just waiting for the right policies to be in place to make them profitable. 

Olano: How do you take into consideration the end of life of these assets — how to either recycle or decommission the batteries once they’re spent?

Jones: That’s one of the drawbacks with lithium batteries — what to do about second-life use. I know that BMW is doing a lot of work to find those uses while at the same time finding technologies that can be fully recyclable and therefore more sustainable. A few of the zinc batteries are fully recyclable, so all of the materials can be transitioned to something else. 

BlueWave is a B Corp, so we’re sustainability-focused. We care about environmental justice, engagement with the Native community, and transparency in our supply chains. So finding ways to source materials responsibly is something that we are very much focused on. A lot of battery materials currently come from China, where there are some problems, so we are looking for alternatives in Europe and Korea. We’re also onshoring some of the technical capabilities here in the U.S. as well. We are definitely thinking a lot about this. 

Olano: Can you tell me more about your background and how you found your career path?

Jones: As a 6-year-old, I wanted to be the Green Lantern, because he has the power to manifest any structure using his ring. When I realized I could not actually become a superhero, I started thinking about what kind of career I could have. Because I loved the idea of building, my dad suggested engineering. So from the age of six, I knew I wanted to go into engineering so I could build things like Green Lantern does with his ring. 

I grew up the youngest of 10 kids in a low-income family. I was the graduation speaker for my sixth-grade graduation, and on that day, a former city councilmember of San Diego promised our entire class that if we graduated from high school, they’d pay for college. At that point, I decided I wanted to go to the best college for engineering in the U.S., which at the time was Stanford. I studied chemical engineering there. I was the first in my family to go to college. Now I joke about the fact that my entire life was inspired by a superhero. 

Olano: How did climate start factoring into your career?

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood. I had asthma as a kid. We lived close to a quarry, and there were huge power lines around our neighborhood and very little green space. My dad worked in La Jolla, which is an affluent part of San Diego, and I started noticing how different things were there, how there were no [visible] power lines there. I started reading a lot about environmental justice and understanding how these things came to be. I got involved in elementary school in projects to clean up San Diego, and I started a community conservation corps. Then I learned about energy equity. Growing up, I saw how much my parents spent on their utility bills, and while other people had efficient appliances like refrigerators that saved energy, we were not able to have that, so our bills were higher. A big focus in my career has been energy access and energy equity because of my own experience. 

Olano: What do you think are some of the systemic barriers within the industry that still make it inaccessible to so many people?

Jones: We’re an industry that is built on systemic racism. Black and brown people are marginalized, not just in career choices and access to resources but also through policies and regulation of energy resources and systems. Even today’s policies are not geared toward considering BIPOC communities first; they are often the last consideration. I think we should prioritize these communities, because otherwise, we’ll just keep these structures that perpetuate racism in place — through policies of disregard, lack of jobs and access to resources, energy, water, etc. 

I have been impressed with some of the recent discussions in New York and California about environmental justice, and even Massachusetts now is doing a lot of work on that. But even with clean energy development, we still deal with a lot of NIMBYism and issues with siting projects. So there’s still a lot of work to do there. 

Olano: What can those who are in positions of power within the industry do to address the problem and be better allies to people of color?

Jones: A lot of companies focus on advertising how diverse they are, but what is diversity, really? Diversity is just a number and a statistic. In some ways, it’s the luck of the draw. If I had not gone to my elementary school, I may not have been able to get a scholarship to attend college, so in that way, diversity can be situational, something that cosmically happens to us, not necessarily a choice we make. Inclusion, on the other hand, is really about creating spaces and systems that truly take people’s full selves into account, and that make them feel heard and welcomed. Equity comes in when we are able to translate those experiences into success for disadvantaged communities, and that is the goal. But that can’t happen without true inclusion. 

I love that BlueWave is extremely anti-racist, as well as community-focused. We look at projects not just in white, affluent communities, but in every community, and figure out the opportunities for residents to be able to participate in our solutions and have ownership over them. We create community-owned projects because you shouldn’t have to own your house in order to have access to clean energy.

In my personal journey, I have chosen which types of companies I work for, and I’ve refused to work with anyone that does not allow me to be myself. I am unapologetically a Black man in this industry. I wear boldly on my chest that I am first-gen and come from a low-income background. I am fiercely devoted to bringing more people of color into STEM. I mentor dozens of people every year because I want to make sure that my story and their stories are heard often and by everyone.

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial and research associate at Canary Media.