Cleantech Industry Fueled by Women0

Laurie Stark | Mon Oct 24 2011 |

Solar Sister founder Katherine Lucey answers your questions on video next week. Leave a question in the comment section below or ask on Twitter using #ctwomen.

“Women hold up half the sky,” claims an Ancient Chinese proverb, but according to research at Clemson University, women hold just eight percent of general management positions in the U.S.

In the sustainability sector, however, women are witnessing rapid advances not found in other fields: women hold 39 percent of leadership positions in this sector. Meet five remarkable women who are tackling the world’s energy crisis and taking the cleantech world by storm.

Katherine Lucey: Investing in energy poverty

After 20 years in investment banking, Katherine Lucey was ready for a change.

Seeing firsthand the devastating effect of energy poverty on women and girls in rural Africa, Lucey was inspired to combine her investment background with her expertise in the energy sector to create change where change is needed most.

While many in developed nations struggle to decrease energy usage, in sub-Saharan Africa just five percent of the rural population has access to electricity. More than a luxury, lamps are necessary for girls who work until sundown before beginning their studies to build a better life.

Through her organization Solar Sister, Lucey empowers women in remote African villages to become entrepreneurs, selling solar lamps to light the homes of their friends and families using their most plentiful natural resource: the sun. When used in place of kerosene, solar lamps reduce household expenses by 30 percent and offer three additional hours of light for studying, reading, and work.

Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones: Algae advocate, biofuel producer

What’s green and red and grows all over? According to Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones, it might be the answer to kicking our coal habit for good.

“If the U.S. put 15 million acres of desert into algae production, we could produce enough [...] liquid fuels to get us off the Middle East oil addiction and give Iowa back to the songbirds,” says algae research biologist B. Gregory Mitchell in an interview with the New York Times.

Morgenthaler-Jones agrees—in fact, she’s banked her savings on it.

In 2006, she and her husband started LiveFuels, a company dedicated to producing biofuel made from algae. They hope to eventually produce fuel as cheap as $1 per gallon.

Some scientists say algae could be a red herring, requiring more energy to produce than other biofuels, but American oil giant ExxonMobil is putting $600 million toward algae fuel research, so maybe Morgenthaler-Jones is on to something after all.

Ann Marie Sastry: Lithium lady

Batteries not included? Ann Marie Sastry just might have the answer.

More power, less battery—that’s the rallying cry of Sastry’s Michigan-based startup Sakti3, which posits that its solid-state lithium-ion battery will revolutionize hybrid cars, boosting their fuel economy to a whopping 100 mpg while slashing the cost of the battery by as much as half.

Sastry has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell and was a professor at the University of Michigan until taking a leave of absence to build Sakti3. Sastry and her team of engineers have caught the eye of General Motors, who invested over $3 million in the company last year.

“If you’re good at what you do, then good people will want to join you,” Sastry said earlier this year at Xconomy’s Michigan 2031 forum in Detroit. “Don’t be afraid to look for world-class people.”

Radha Jalan: Fuel cells for the future

When stay-at-home mom Radha Jalan’s husband died of a heart attack at age 47, she had three choices: get a job, go back to India, or take over the fuel cell company her husband had founded.

She decided to take a leap.

Nearly 15 years later, Jalan is still the CEO of ElectroChem, which manufactures fuel-cell stacks and electrodes for organizations as diverse as General Motors and NASA. In a single decade, Jalan increased the company’s revenues from $400,000 to over $2 million.

“Nobody expected me to make it,” she told the Indian Express in 2007. “I was not an engineer and I didn’t have an MBA degree. So I took the challenge saying, what do I have to lose?”

It turns out she had nothing to lose—and everything to gain.

Danielle Fong: Smart storage solutions

When 23-year-old Danielle Fong learned how the electrical grid worked, she was horrified.

Like most people, Fong assumed electricity was produced at the rate it was used by consumers. But the demand for electricity is unpredictable at best: lacking a reliable and economical way of storing energy, the grid must produce a surplus of energy to avoid nationwide blackouts. The result is burned coal that’s never even used.

“The entire world has wired itself up with an electrical grid that is fundamentally insane,” Fong says on her blog. She says renewable energy isn’t much better—while certainly cleaner than coal, wind and solar power produce energy at wildly unpredictable rates, making them undependable sources if we can’t store the surplus for later use.

That’s why she started working to change the way the grid works.

Fong is Co-Founder and Chief Scientist of Lightsail Energy, a company that uses compressed air and water to solve one of the greatest environmental conundrums of our time: how to efficiently and economically store clean energy so it can be used to power the world.

Fong started life as a physics prodigy, entering college at the age of 12 and going on to graduate study at Princeton’s Plasma Physics Lab. She says her career path hasn’t always been easy, but it has always felt right.

“I was surprised that it felt this right, at every step,” Fong says of her career path. “There were no agonizing decisions. I went with my gut, and I am happy where I am.”

Illustration by Greg Kletsel