By: Jo Studdard
Though the renewable energy sector presents a wealth of options to young people interested in green careers, many face barriers to entry in this field, particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), women, and gender minorities. At the same time, problem-solvers in renewables expansion, policymaking, and other areas are needed now more than ever to close America’s Home Energy Affordability Gap and provide Americans with accessible clean energy options.
In this interview series, MAYE Corps aims to highlight the careers of energy professionals from underrepresented groups and hear about the changes they envision for their field--whether cultural, political, or infrastructural. This series will also share the experiences of individuals living with unaffordable energy burdens and their thoughts on how to make residential energy more equitable for consumers.
Recently, MAYE Corps Development Coordinator Brittany Judson (she/her/hers) sat down with Lyanda Dudley (she/her/hers), a Renewable Energy Intern at McKinstry. Dudley earned her Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering at Cornell in 2019. She is continuing her education at the University of Michigan, where she is working on a Master’s in Energy Systems Engineering. During the conversation, Dudley shared her hopes for the renewable energy field, as well as her perspective on studying engineering as a half-white, half-Asian woman and living with unaffordable energy bills as a graduate student.
The opinions expressed in this interview are Dudley’s own and do not represent the views of her employer or graduate program at the University of Michigan.
In the summer of 2020, Dudley began her internship at McKinstry, a construction engineering company. She revealed that the renewables team she works on is a new addition to the firm, which designs, builds, operates, and maintains high-performance buildings. “They pretty much created this team because a lot of their construction was incorporating rooftop solar or wanting to incorporate renewables into it,“ Dudley elaborated. “And so they were finding more and more they needed a dedicated team to work on that.” Of her role’s responsibilities, Dudley shared: “Most of what I’ve been doing in my day-to-day has been working on solar development, whether that’s helping price out different systems, figuring out what capacity we can put on a roof, or what capacity we can put on a nearby site.”
When it comes to expanding renewable energy within the United States, Dudley reflected on some of the challenges she has observed through her work in the field:
"I feel like renewable energy and energy efficiency [have] gotten very political. I think that a lot of the time, the politics tend to get in the way. I’ve seen a lot of that with renewable development, when you’re trying to call landowners to see if they’d be interested in putting a solar array on their property or putting a wind turbine on their property. Some people are very, very receptive to it, and some people, the moment you mention anything renewable energy, it’s a shut-the-door. It’s a non-starter. I think that’s definitely something that we need to work past . . . I don’t think it’s necessarily fossil fuels or renewables. I don’t think it’s [necessary to] shut out all of those jobs. I think there’s balance, and if we do it right, you can still have fossil fuels and still offset with renewables and still be working towards removing carbon from the atmosphere or preventing temperature increase and all the other side effects that come from that. There are so many. I think that’s the biggest hurdle that we need to get over."
Most recently from Omaha, Nebraska, Lyanda explained that her high school environmental science class influenced her passion for sustainability: “I think that gave me this really big appreciation for the Earth in general and how incredibly complex of a system it is. I think climate change really struck home . . . That’s really what got me into the whole sustainability field in the first place.”
“Beginning in undergrad, I knew I was interested in renewables,” Dudley shared:
"I actually got really excited, because there was this technology called Solar Roadways. Basically, they were trying to design these tiles that would replace asphalt roads and that could also act as solar collectors. And I thought, “Oh, that’s so cool! I want to go to school for engineering and learn how to help make a more sustainable world but be able to integrate it into people’s lives in a way that’s not too disruptive.”
In 2015, Dudley began her freshman year at Cornell. While studying full-time, Dudley also competed for Cornell’s varsity gymnastics team. In her engineering classes and internships, Dudley told us, she noticed a palpable lack of diversity. When asked about obstacles she had faced as a woman in a historically male-dominated field, Dudley had this to say:
"As unfortunate as it is, [I] think there are definite inherent obstacles. I think the most common one that people know of is, you get thrown in an engineering group project and then you’re the secretary. And you’re like, “Hold on! I wanted to be playing with that experiment and not just taking notes on it.” I think it’s small things like that. And then also, when you get hired into companies, usually, it’s all men. I have not had a female mentor to date. None of my supervisors, none of my managers have ever been a female."
Dudley expressed her hopes that, by welcoming more women into engineering, the field will become more accessible to students and young professionals, regardless of gender: “I think that, again, that’s something that we need to be working on and we need to be getting more representation for. And I think that it’ll help eliminate some of these obstacles.”
When asked about whether she had faced racial discrimination in the field, Dudley became pensive. “You know, to be honest, none that I would say [has] immediately affected me,” she stated:
"When we’re talking about race right now, especially in current racial climates, I’ve been very attentive to the fact that I am half-white and I am half-Asian. And that can play to my advantage in either way. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. But I think, a lot of times, I can play off the half-white part more than I can play off the half-Asian part and it’ll work out in the end. Honestly, going back to racial stereotyping, you get the “Oh, Asians are good at math. They’re really good at science.” That kind of thing. And so, again, I think in the specific field that I’m in, honestly that probably works to my advantage a little bit. And so, I would say explicitly in my life, or at least in my career path, I haven’t felt that that's been a barrier for me."
Reflecting on the inclusion of women and racial minorities in her graduate-level courses and internships, Dudley had the following to say:
"I would say, in terms of my program at Michigan, they’ve been working hard to recruit international students and people of color, but it’s obviously a work in progress for sure. I would say, in general, engineering is still working on bringing more women into the field. . . . What was really exciting is my undergraduate institution actually just got more female engineers than male engineers in their recruiting class, I think, a year or two ago. They finally surpassed that barrier and that was really exciting. And maybe not explicitly in my field of engineering, but, in general, that’s still a pretty good step. So, that was definitely exciting. In general, in the energy space, I think, we’re making progress, but I think, as with a lot of STEM roles, honestly, there’s still a long way to go."
In 2019, Dudley relocated from Ithaca, New York to Ann Arbor to begin her graduate study at the University of Michigan. “I had the pleasure of working with a research team that got more into the building side of energy,” Dudley shared. “That’s just been a subject that’s always fascinated me. And then, when I was in my graduate housing last year, we started racking up really high energy bills, and my passion got me to really focus on that.”
Dudley moved into an old four-story home in town with six roommates. When their power bills came due, the energy inefficiency of the home was quickly evident: “As we slowly crept into winter,” Dudley explained, “The bills just kept creeping higher and higher and higher, and there was one point where we were paying $80/person just on your standard utilities, not even looking into water [or] wifi.” By January, Dudley said, the house’s energy costs hit a high of $550. “Yes, it’s Michigan,” she acknowledged, “And yes, it’s poor student housing, but that’s still a crazy high number to be paying for utilities, even in the dead of winter.”
As they watched their energy bills rise from steep to astronomical, Dudley and her roommates took drastic measures to reduce their energy consumption:
"We were doing everything in our power to bring that number down. So, we were in the middle of winter and we set our house to 64°F. That was just a little bit low for some people in the house . . . I felt really bad, because I had a housemate from Singapore, and this girl was freezing the whole winter! We were afraid to turn it up any higher than that, because we didn’t want to see that bill go through the roof."
“I feel like, when you’re at that point, there’s something that seriously needs to be checked with the house,” Dudley asserted. When the roommates brought the issue to their landlord’s attention, their concerns were met with apathy, and ultimately, silence:
"We emailed our landlord and basically said, 'Hey, we’re keeping our house at 64°F. We’re turning all the lights off. We don’t even cook that much. We’re really trying to do everything in our power to bring this energy bill down. Can you maybe look into getting an audit done on the house? We notice when we open cabinets that we get a cool gust that comes through the cabinet. I’m sure the back wall is not insulated. There’s probably a bunch of other leaks going on. Can you just get an energy audit done on the house so we know where we can try to curb that energy usage or make some sort of small alteration?' Basically, he came back with, 'Well, the storm windows aren’t in. So you should really put those in. And you should make sure your thermostat’s not super high.' . . . We sent him another [email] once we got that $550 bill and said, 'Hey, this is really unusual. We’ve talked to all the other people on our street and they’re all paying $400. They have the same size houses that we do. Their houses are, honestly, probably equally falling apart. This is abnormal, explicitly for the block that we live on . . . Please check it out.' . . . Basically, we didn’t get a response to that one. We just got ignored."
Dudley reflected that she would like to see policies put in place to hold landlords accountable for maintaining upkeep on rental properties. “I would like to see where the landlord takes a little bit of ownership for the inherent structure of the house and what they’re doing maintenance-wise to keep up,” she explained. “Are they making sure their windows are sealed? Are they making sure that the fridge isn’t 35 years old and has a broken compressor and is just sucking up energy? Same goes for any large appliances, like washing machines.”
Splitting utility expenses between the property owner and tenant could also help in distributing costs fairly, Dudley remarked. “I’ve had a housing contract that kind of worked out well, now that I think about it in retrospect, where they split up the type of utility,” she recalled. “So our landlord paid for water and the electricity to heat water, and we paid for actual electricity and our natural gas usage. And that was a little bit closer to a fair split, in my mind.”
During their conversation, interviewer Brittany Judson was reminded of the United Kingdom’s Minimum Energy Efficiency Standard. Using mandatory Energy Performance Certificate ratings to measure the energy efficiency of rental properties, this recent piece of legislation bars landlords from leasing properties with insufficient energy ratings. Dudley drew a comparison between this policy and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Home Energy Score, a system for quantifying a home’s energy efficiency. “It basically gives people who are looking to buy that home an idea of what their energy usage looks like, what the state of the house is like. I don’t see why we can’t do that for renters, too,” she suggested. “Cities could make them mandatory.”
Reflecting upon the difficulties her home’s energy burden caused, Dudley made the following remarks:
"If you don’t necessarily know about the effects of high energy bills, you’re in a lucky position in some sense. Because that either means that the utility bills in your area are really reasonable, or it means that you have the financial means that it’s such a small percentage of your income that it doesn’t make an impact. And I would say, if you fall into that bucket, just [take] it a step further and really [think] beyond into the impact on others. Like, okay, if it doesn’t impact you, is it impacting other people? There are people where 50% of their income is going towards utilities . . . Putting it into perspective and saying, 'Okay, what if I take 50% of my income and I pretend 50% of my income was just gone to utilities every month?' Just understanding in that perspective, how your life would be so different. That’s one way to start understanding the impacts of high energy bills."
Dudley also encouraged those fortunate enough to live without unaffordable burdens to join the struggle in achieving equity for those affected:
"Once you kind of get that understanding, think about how you can use your own voice to help improve the situation. Yes, a lot of it is at the hands of landlords. But also a lot of it is at the hands of utilities. If there are not enough people making noise about a certain rate schedule or the way that utilities are handled, I don't think that cities are going to necessarily pay attention or that the utilities are going to pay attention . . . Maybe a high energy bill isn’t that big of a deal to you the way it’s a big deal to a lot of people in your community, but if you can help by also bringing your voice to the table, then that just brings an even bigger case and makes more noise and it helps direct attention towards the issue. "
As the conversation drew to a close, Dudley reflected on the intersectionality of climate justice and energy equity. “Honestly, for me, [this] whole conversation and everything that we’ve touched on, it really just comes down to caring for the people around you,” she remarked. “Caring for the community a step further and saying, ‘Okay, how are my actions impacting others?’ Really, I think that’s what it comes down to, whether it’s energy burdens, whether it’s renewable energy, whether it’s looking at fossil fuels.”
MAYE Corps would like to thank Lyanda Dudley for interviewing with us and sharing her unique perspective for this project. Interested in learning more about MAYE Corps? We invite you to explore our website and connect with us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram (@mayecorps).