Women in Solar Energy: Perspectives from the Field

As part of our Women’s History Month celebrations, we are honoring women in the energy field who are working to solve one of the most pressing global issues, Climate Change.  Thanks to Lita Colligan, Associate Vice President for Strategic Partnerships and Government Relations at Oregon Tech, for introducing us to these women and to learn more about this field. 

Hope Corsair, Program Director, Renewable Energy Engineering at Oregon Tech

Hope Corsair

How did you choose your career path?  How did it lead you to solar and renewable energy? 

As an engineering undergraduate student at Lehigh in Pennsylvania, my interest in renewable energy began in a thermodynamics class.  From my seat in the class, the smoke stacks of Bethlehem Steel were in full view.  Watching the obvious loss of waste heat while delving into the principles of thermodynamics ignited my initial interest in co-generation and this led to a general interest in renewable energy. 

What excites you about your job every day? 

#1 – getting students excited about renewable energy! On the whole, renewable engineering students are a remarkably passionate group.  I like to give students the tools to take their idealism and energy and operationalize it.

Is there a future for women in solar careers?

Absolutely!  Women in engineering have many possibilities.  In my experience, women generally gravitate to “context oriented” engineering where they can apply their skills, and get a concrete feeling of how their work solves a problem in the world.  Renewable energy engineering with tangible outcomes and positive community and environmental benefits is a natural path for many women.   

The solar industry is notoriously unstable – what makes you stick with solar as a career?

There is a future in renewable energy.  There are short-term ups and downs with this industry, but it is steadily growing.  Global climate change and other factors are driving the need for more types of energy in the mix, and more skilled professionals and engineers.  We have to ride out the ups and downs and recognize that solar energy is a part of a realistic energy future.  I feel strongly about educating more energy engineers because there will be jobs in the future.

Sarah Freel, Co-owner, Synchro Solar

Sarah

How did you choose your career path and how did it lead you to working with solar energy?

I took a college class where we did lots of calculations on the availability of energy resources, both renewable and non-renewable. I really enjoyed the "math with a purpose" and was amazed by the potential of solar. After graduating, I did an internship at the Solar Living Center in Hopland, CA where I was able to interact daily with the technology as well as the general public who would visit the center to learn more about solar. It was a very inspiring time, and at that point I was hooked on solar. I moved up to Portland shortly thereafter in 2003 and quickly landed an installation job at Mr.Sun Solar. In 2009 I took the small business owner leap and along with three other co-owners, opened up Synchro Solar.

What excites you about your job every day?

I enjoy the human interaction the most. Practically everyone I interact with daily has a positive attitude- whether it be customers, my fellow co-workers, or other industry folk. Getting to spend a lot of time outdoors and catching good views from rooftops comes in close second.

Is there a future for women in solar careers?

Absolutely. Not all women will want to work on rooftops or in hot attics, but neither will all men. It takes a certain type of person to be willing to work on a sloped surface high in the air. However, if a woman feels like that's her calling, there's no reason at all why she couldn't succeed. Solar installation is not only about physical strength; you use your brain quite a lot. It takes good organizational skills, good math skills, and a keen attention to detail and safety. There are also many jobs in the solar industry that are not installation jobs- such as structural and electrical designers, sales, and marketing. Women can plug in in a variety of ways based on their interest and skills.

The solar industry is notoriously unstable – what makes you stick with solar as a career?  

Because I really believe that despite the ups and downs, solar is here to stay. Plus it's great fun to be involved in this industry. It's a nice blend of technical skill combined with lots of positive human interaction. 

Alyssa Deardorff, Student, Renewable Energy Engineering at Oregon Tech

Tech_GirlsHow did you choose your education and career path?  How did it lead you to renewable energy? 

My choice to study Renewable Energy Engineering stems from my desire to help people and create a more sustainable future and from my interest in applied math and science.  Through this degree I hope to work with living buildings and sustainable community development.

What excites you about your studies and work every day? 

I appreciate how the renewable energy engineering coursework intertwines the traditional mechanical and electrical disciplines because I believe it gives us a unique and necessary perspective of sustainable energy systems.  The material is challenging and exciting, and I enjoy my classmates as they inspire me with their continual hard work and passion to make a positive impact through engineering.

What has been your biggest learning or challenge? 

While being female has not been a barrier for me, it is sometimes awkward when I realize I am the only girl in my engineering classes.  Sometimes this makes me feel like an impostor, but at Oregon Tech’s Wilsonville campus, I have been fortunate to have several outstanding female professors and this year we started a new Society of Women Engineers collegiate section!

What are your big hopes for renewable energy in the nation and in the world?

I see the future of our nation in our education systems.  By combining the methods in science and technology with the strategies of artists and designers, we can engage students and illustrate to them the potential social and environmental impacts they can have in STEM disciplines.  Implementing local, real, and relevant curriculum will encourage more students to pursue STEM and sustainability. 

Laurie Hutchinson, Project Manager, Obsidian Renewables

LaurieHow did you choose your career path?  How did it lead you to solar and renewable energy? 

My so-called “career path” has been less straight path and more winding road.  Prior to my solar career, I was running a small business in the tourism industry.  I found myself more and more concerned about sustainability, food and energy and water issues, all being hot topics.  At the time I was in the process of remodeling my house and discovered I sort of enjoyed wiring.  I took a solar design and installation course in 2005 and I was hooked.  Solar PV is such an elegant and relatively simple and timeless technology.  It has improved in efficiency but the technology is nearly the same as when it was invented 60 years ago. 

What excites you about your job every day? 

There are many things that excite me.  I think the aspect I enjoy most is taking something from concept on paper to physical reality.  It is pretty fun (and a little nerve racking at times) to shepherd a project to fruition.

Is there a future for women in solar careers?

Of course!  I have met many interesting women working in solar – installers, small business owners, developers.  Women are generally vastly outnumbered but over the years I see more and more women at training conferences.  Happily a number of women are sticking with it and moving on to become leaders in the industry. 

The solar industry is notoriously unstable – what makes you stick with solar as a career?

I am committed that not only solar but renewable energy in general is the path forward.  I get very excited when I hear about other countries who are exceeding 40 % renewable energy in the mix.  Solar is a part of the portfolio of renewable energy options that I understand the best.  Although I work mainly in solar I think it makes me more informed on general energy policy.  I hope the US will see 40 % or more domestic renewable energy!