'This is the time for women outreach in the renewable energy sector'
Gauri Singh, Deputy Director General of IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, is a career bureaucrat with over 30 years experience in policy formulation, implementation and advocacy in renewable energy, sustainable development and livelihoods. She has walked a long and fruitful path in the energy domain, but her most notable achievements, she has worked for the Government of India, where she led policy formation for India's National Solar Mission, 2010, and in Madhya Pradesh, where she provided strategic guidance for large sustainable development projects, with a strong focus on climate resilience. An alumnus of Delhi University with major in Economics, Ms Singh spoke to ETN Editor-in-Chief Ashok Thakur at the World Utilities Conference in Abu Dhabi, where she discussed her journey, female participation in energy, and ways the sector can attract more talent.
I'd like to start with a phrase doing the rounds these days. 'Women in Energy'. Women have been an integral part of this sector's evolution, but when we look around, somewhere there is a dearth of popular names in the public imagination, probably because of the lack of position or publicity. So, is the sector doing its bit to foster gender equality? Your views, please…
One key trend we are seeing is that while we have all grown up with a centralized form of energy, with centralized plants and grids bringing us energy, what we are seeing is the emergence of decentralized power. This means the whole way that energy was looked at and studied will change.
Most people that we see in the power sector today have been educated by a system that emphasized 'base load', but we are now moving to a much more intermittent form of energy coming into our grids.
So in the traditional energy systems, whether oil & gas or coal based, just about 20 percent percent or so of the workforce used to be women. But with new forms of energy, more than 30 percent percent of the workforce is women. One reason is that this modern form of energy is much more amenable and flexible in terms of opportunities it offers women, whether in the field or in management. And as more renewable and clean energy enters our grid, I wouldn't be surprised to see even more women in the energy sector. Both across India and other emerging economies.
Does energy actively market itself as a promising sector for career-oriented women? We see sectors such as IT doing this… even marketing does this to some extent, but we don't see that much from the energy industry. Are there any special steps needed?
You're absolutely correct, not much emphasis is given to attracting women, and I think a lot of more outreach needs to be done. We need to explain to younger people the positives of being in this sector. On my side, I am not happy seeing just 30 percent women in the sector, especially in the renewables sector.
See, at the end careers are all about making choices, and the youth make their choices when they are studying and by looking at their peers. And I feel that's really the time to influence young women to see this sector positively, because this is a transformative moment in the history of the energy sector and it's going to happen in their lifetime. So we ought to explain to them the benefits this sector affords and then allow them the opportunity to make their mark.
The way to do this could be through policy, by looking at the ways the curriculums are seen or taught, and the intention with which outreach to younger women happens, to make them see this as an attractive career.
How has been your journey, and what has been your driving force to be in the energy sector?
I never looked at this sector as a no-go domain for women, and I think this is just a perception issue… in the way that some sectors get stereotyped as male-dominated and others as female-friendly.
I think for the modern and the young woman, the types of barriers and stereotypes that affected my generation's choices do not exist. Younger women are living in a very interconnected world and seeing other people make different career choices from what my generation did.
For me of course, it was all about looking at this as just another place where you understand and comprehend the system and excel in it, as opposed to looking at it as a male dominated sector and then getting some sort of diffidence for being a woman.
I remember in 2010 when I was shaping India's national solar policy, often in meetings I was the only woman there. But that never deterred me. I believe it's important to do your best, regardless of whether you are in a so-called "male-dominated" sector or otherwise.
Do you have a role model?
It's always been my mother, who came from a very small place… and I think she really broke glass ceilings along her journey… It was really fascinating to watch how she interacted with the so-called "closed space" and was able to do well and build her career, and I think that rubbed off on me.
As children we were taught that there's nothing you cannot achieve, as long as you pursue it with the passion and motivation that needs to be there.
The world is talking about Net Zero, but is it also walking the talk on Net Zero? Your views please.
In the last few years with the pandemic and the Ukraine crisis, we have seen huge political momentum built around getting to Net Zero.
But a target like Net Zero by 2050 is too far away for everyone to comprehend. So I think we need to break it down into what needs to be done now and in this decade, and if you look at the policies being announced by countries, and the way they are thinking of going about it, certainly there is a need for more action.
This is not to say there has not been a big ramp-up in activity, but our analysis at Irena shows that we are still offtrack in many of the targets we have set for ourselves for 2050 or 2070.
This is a foundational decade and we need to invest much more on infra that will take us to the new energy system. We need to focus a lot more on enabling policies and regulations that can speed up the processing time so that installations can happen on the ground.
Lastly, we see that while we humans might have some sort of trajectory for climate change, the climate itself seems to be changing much faster and there is evidence of this all around.