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Portraits of Women in the Power Industry

In early 2013, a group of women, dubbed the Women in Power committee, assembled in Orlando, Florida to figure out how to honor women who have dedicated their careers to the power industry. The industry is male-dominated with men making up more than 75 percent of the workforce, according to some estimates. The Women in Power committee believed that it was time to give recognition to the pioneering women who have worked to advance the power industry. To do this, the committee decided to allow anyone in the industry to nominate a woman for a Woman of the Year Award, which would be given out at POWER-GEN International. To judge the nominees, the committee came up with three focus areas.

The first and most important accomplishment that the committee believed a potential Power-Gen Woman of the Year should have made is advancing the power industry. In addition, the committee judged nominees by the organizational and personal accomplishments they have made along with the challenges that she has she had to overcome. Finally, the committee believed that a potential Power-Gen Woman of the Year should be a leader, a mentor and should give back to her community.  After two months of collecting nominations, the 15-member committee voted on the nominees and came up with three finalists, who are described below. 

One of these women will be named the Power-Gen 2013 Woman of the Year at the annual awards banquet, on Monday, Nov. 11, which takes place at the Hard Rock Live at the Universal Resort in Orlando, Fla. The banquet is part of the POWER-GEN International Conference and Exhibition and the co-located NUCLEAR POWER International Conference and Exhibition, Renewable Energy World Conference & Exhibition, North America and the Financial Forum.

The 2013 Power-Gen Woman of the Year will then give a keynote speech during the Women in Power Luncheon on Thursday, November 14th at the Orange County Convention Center also as part of the co-located conferences.  Here’s a look at the finalists:

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Patty West – “I was probably the original science nerd and it played out very well for me.”

Patty West believes that she was destined to be in the power industry.  “When I was little, my favorite song was Glenn Campbell’s Lineman for the County,” she said laughing.  “That might have been predestination that I was going to end up in the utility business!” West considers herself a “science nerd” whose love for science fairs led her to pursue a career in civil engineering.  She explained that she had a desire for an environmental career and at the time, “we didn’t have all these fancy different environmental engineering choices, we had mechanical, civil, or electrical,” she said. She chose civil.

Plus, there was the TVA. “TVA has its roots almost in everyone that lives in the Tennessee Valley so getting a job with TVA was like getting the best job ever,” she said.  West turned out to be one of those lucky ones, landing a TVA job right out of grad school, performing water quality testing.  Her interest in the environment and her job with TVA allowed her to develop a many-faceted career, pursing different aspects of the power industry over the past 37 years.  “When I first started our coal units weren’t controlled for any emission controls and renewable energy was just kind of a novelty,” she says. At the start of her career she worked on environmental compliance, working to install scrubbers on coal units. 

Witnessing the growth of renewable energy has been a career highpoint for West, who saw renewable technology go from “bench scale to mainstream.”  When she began with TVA 37 years ago, there was almost no renewable energy generation.  Today, including hydro, the utility has more than 6 GW of renewable capacity in its portfolio.  “I guess that’s my highlight.  Just seeing things go from bench scale to R&D to commercial and now to kind of mainstream generation sources is a highlight,” she said.

West is pleased by the growth of women in management roles at TVA.  She said that at a recent meeting with the leadership team there was a line for the women’s restroom during a break and she appreciated what that symbolized for women in a traditionally male-dominated industry. “I’m like, ‘this is great!’” she said, “because I can remember when there weren’t enough women.” 

West would like to see women who are interested in science really go for it.  “Continue to pursue science and engineering [because] it’s so rewarding for those that want to do that,” she said. “I was probably the original science nerd and it played out very well for me!”

West thinks that over the next 30 years, utilities are going to change dramatically.  “I think we’re going to see a lot of emphasis on…we call it ‘customer-centric generation,’” she explained.  Customers are demanding more choice about how their power is generated and they want more control over their own use of it, a transition that is already heavily underway. She pointed to customers using cell phones to turn down their thermostats to control their own energy consumption and putting solar panels on their roofs to generate their own electricity as examples of customer-centric generation.

“The utility industry is going to be really exciting for the next 30 years,” said West. “My advice is to get involved because that’s where the fun is going to be.”

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Ria Persad – “The power industry can’t afford to have the weatherman always be wrong.”

When Ria Persad was in the fifth grade, she built her own battery.  She didn’t do it because she had an older brother who was interested in science (she’s an only child) nor because her parents pushed her into science (they were immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago who had very little education), no, she did it because she simply loved science.  At the age of ten, she said, she read about batteries, electromagnetism and energy and built a circuit board and powered a light bulb with it.  “That was just my favorite thing to do – I loved doing science projects,” she explained.

When she won a trip to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory at age 15 and was introduced to the then-cutting edge Cray Supercomputer, Persad knew she’d found her career. To this day, she considers that summer to be when her career in the power industry began. Modeling huge datasets to predict the weather became her passion. “The number one fundamental factor that determines how much energy people actually need is the weather,” she explained.  “So you have all of these scientists working to gauge the nation’s energy consumption and prepare for that.”

After a stint working in the oil and gas exploration field, she landed a job at Enron, which led to a job with Duke at the energy-trading desk. It was in that capacity that she saw first hand how utilities use weather data and risk analysis to forecast how much power they will need to purchase for the coming months.  “In the government their 3-month forecast is a color-coded map,” she said, explaining that a map like that isn’t useful because “in the energy industry, they need numbers and they need to know the risk.” When Enron went under, it took down Duke as well and Persad was out of job.  “But now I knew the need,” she said.

Persad brought up the old joke about how the weatherman is always wrong “but I said, ‘you know, this industry can’t really afford the weatherman to always be wrong,’” she explained.  So with models in hand, Persad decided to open her own business, one that would analyze weather data for the power industry. This sort of weather risk analysis was “a totally different way of looking at the weather that is actually more in the realm of the way computer scientists and mathematicians look at data, which was right up my alley since I’m trained in mining data,” she said.  “So all I needed to do was hire on a couple computer scientists.” And StatWeather was born.

Persad’s career highlight came in May 2013, which was just one year after the company launched its comprehensive end-user platform.  The platform allowed her models to seamlessly integrate with her utility customer’s in-house systems. “They just automatically get an end result of whatever they are trying to estimate – whether it’s a load forecast or power forecast, or whatever,” she explained. After being on the market for only one year, StatWeather was voted the top North America weather provider to the energy industry. 

Persad does more than offer advice to women interested in entering the power industry, she actively works to expose women and minorities to the sciences.  In 2009, she founded the Freedom Scholars of America Scholarship Fund, which awards scholarships to deserving students who may not be eligible for financial aid because their parents are undocumented immigrants or because they are mothers returning to school on a part-time basis.  She believes that she got to where she is today because people believed in her and she wants to pass that along to other deserving young students.

Women have unique qualities that they bring to the table, especially the power industry, said Persad. “When I go into a company, I’m not thinking ‘how can I make the most money here?’ I’m thinking ‘how can I meet this need?’” She believes that women view certain aspects of business differently than men and she feels that is a real asset to the power industry. “The compassion, the kindness, the grace that we bring to the table of leadership is very instrumental and can really enhance our leadership capabilities,” she said, explaining that a woman may view the utility’s role in mitigating the devastating impacts of a hurricane differently than a man may view its role. “You know, [in power industry] ultimately we’re impacting peoples lives. When you can see the human side of it, it’s very motivating,” she said. “I think that women have a lot to bring to that picture.”

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Jane Weissman – “My career high point is today.”

Early on in her career in public policy, Jane Weissman noticed that one common denominator when talking about the environment and how it related to public health issues or quality of life issues was energy. From there, she developed an interest in Photovoltaics, which led her to the Massachusetts Center of Excellence. Since PV technology was good – “we had great minds at MIT and Lincoln Labs in the state,” she said – the real challenge was in creating a policy platform that would advance the new energy technology. “People considered the renewables very much in the margins and not really to be taken seriously,” she said.  This was a challenge that she faced head on.

In 1991, her work with the national solar industry and utilities led to the creation of the PV- COMPACT and the PV for Utilities State Groups (UPVG) and in 1996, she became the President and CEO of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), the job she holds today.

Other milestones for Weissman include helping to shape the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE). “I enjoyed getting that started and keeping it on track,” she said.  In addition she helped to found the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), the Institute for Sustainable Power Quality (ISPQ), the Solar Rating Certification Council (SRCC), and the Small Wind Certification Council (SWCC).

Weissman acknowledged that she was especially proud of steering IREC to become an American national standards developer organization (SDO), accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Being recognized by ANSI was “pretty powerful for us,” said Weissman, “we’re now playing with the big boys.”

A career highlight for Jane Weissman is “today” she said, crediting the “smart, dedicated, innovative thinkers” with whom she works every day as giving her the inspiration and stamina to help keep up the renewable energy momentum. “I learn from them everyday,” she said “and my job is to make sure they have the resources to be successful.” She considers the work being done today by her colleagues as what has really brought distributed generation forward. Weissman said she also credits the late Shimon Awerbuch as having a large influence on her professional career.  He was a forward-thinking economist, she explained, who believed in the importance of a diverse portfolio of generation assets including renewables in an economy. “He was really at the forefront of a lot of really deep economic thinking,” she said and she was lucky to be able to work with him.

“Make sure you have a front seat at the table and don’t give it up,” is the advice the Weissman offers to women entering the power industry. "Don’t take anything said personally, and just have confidence in your own judgment and intellect.” Weissman admits that she has had to prove herself to make her way in this male-dominated power industry. “Guys get a head start on us,” she said.  But, she went on to say, “In all fairness, once they know who they are working with, I feel very much part of the leadership in this country. I have a seat at the table and I feel accepted.” 


One of these women will become the Power-Gen 2013 Woman of the Year and will give a keynote speech at the Women in Power Luncheon on Thursday, November 14th at the Orange County Convention Center as part of the co-located conferences: POWER-GEN International Conference and Exhibition, NUCLEAR POWER International Conference and Exhibition, Renewable Energy World Conference & Exhibition, North America and the Financial Forum. For more information about the events, click here.

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