Learn to communicate and think critically — learning new ways to communicate with people while also thinking critically is the easiest and most effective way to make change. A small silver lining to an otherwise devastating situation, COVID-19 has aided in breaking down a lot of the cross-nation boundaries we had before.
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Trudie Wang.
Trudie Wang is the Vice President of Product at Heila Technologies. She has a BS degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkley, and completed MS and Ph.D. degrees at Stanford University with a focus on renewable energy and distributed optimization of DERs. Her primary focus in her role is on developing a product that will enable the sustainable and democratized use of resources to minimize humanity’s carbon footprint on this planet while ensuring the definition of distributed and renewable generation of energy does not discriminate based on class or category.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I’m a pragmatic and seasoned if somewhat idealistic engineer with over a decade of experience in distributed optimization algorithms and software that empowers distributed energy resources (DERs, e.g., solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicles, smart loads) and their end-users at the grid edge. I am currently VP of Product and also leading the algorithms team at Heila Technologies, an MIT-born company whose sole mission is to dynamically and organically integrate and optimize these DERs into the power grid to disruptively rebuild it from the ground up. My experience translates across the domains of algorithm creation, software development, product architecture and market design, helping reimagine a distributed energy system that is built up of fleets of microgrids and virtual power plants (VPPs) that enables and empowers every end-user to become a partner on the grid.
I received my BS degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkley, and then went on to complete my MS and Ph.D. degrees at Stanford University with a focus on renewable energy and distributed optimization of DERs to rebuild a more sustainable and intelligent grid. After having spent all my life pursuing sustainable development and social equity, through a series of significant and seemingly almost fateful events, I came to the realization that we were approaching the climate and equity problems with somewhat suboptimal solutions. I knew we could not continue to just throw more renewables into the mix of addressing climate change; there needed to be a more intelligent grid to help orchestrate and choreograph it all in a cooperative way.
My north star remained unchanged in terms of addressing social inequality and a sustainable planet but the route to get there was re-directed. From this point forward, even though there had been a first wave of clean tech on a green bandwagon, smart grid had yet to become a buzzword, so I essentially cobbled together my own Ph.D. program with the support and help of mentors and friends from both the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and Stanford. The industry did evolve gradually and catch up in the same direction (smart grid became that buzzword during this time!) but not at the pace I needed.
With my Ph.D. thesis work under my toolbelt, I wanted to move away from academia and research and be more hands-on in the innovation of technology to see something have more impact in a self-sustaining and pragmatic way. I personally needed to leverage my capabilities to as great an extent as possible to directly fix the critical issues our planet was facing. After graduate school, I spent several years working at SolarCity and Growing Energy Labs (GELI) before finally bringing together the academic and technical prowess coupled with industry and market knowledge at Heila Technologies. My primary focus at Heila is now on developing a product that will enable the sustainable and democratized use of our resources to minimize humanity’s carbon footprint on this planet while ensuring the definition of distributed and renewable generation of energy does not discriminate based on class or category.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
I had my “aha moment” at a very young age. As soon as I came across issues like resource waste, global poverty and climate change, I remember very pointedly asking myself “why doesn’t everyone care about fixing this and why am I an anomaly on this planet?” I was only nine years old. My passion for environmental stewardship and social equity exponentially skyrocketed from that point forward. In high school I was interested in engineering and technology classes where I taught myself to build small wind turbines and formed my own sustainable development group — and this was back in the 90’s before sustainability had become a recognized concept that anyone had come across let alone was familiar with!
The pivot in grad school from renewables to a more intelligent and empowering grid came when I one day learned from a quirky professor who was giving a seminar that we were underutilizing the grid at any given time by more than 50%. This sudden revelation almost literally stunned me. I realized from this point on that the best way to address both resource waste and social inequity was to orchestrate our resources and infrastructure in a much more intelligent and distributed way.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
I’d like my story of environmental stewardship to empower women who want to embark on a similar journey into tech and energy. Women bring so much to the table — they are often more empathetic, statistically and anecdotally shown to be better listeners than their male counterparts and bring a lot of much needed compassion to the tech-heavy industry. I’m proud to currently be leading an almost all-female product and algorithm team at Heila. I hope to continue to mentor and coach women both inside Heila and across the industry and world on how to deal with difficult situations — I want them to leapfrog many of the challenges that I went through so that they can also contribute to the best of their abilities in fixing the problems our planet faces.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
I would be remiss in not acknowledging that all the work we’re doing at Heila Technologies is completely aligned with my mission to address climate change and tackle social equity and climate justice. Our core product leverages emergent intelligence that automatically connects any power asset (solar, batteries, smart loads etc.), in any configuration, into a resilient operating grid network that enables and empowers any person on the grid to contribute to whatever extent they can without burden. I’ve made sure as VP of product that what we are developing for our larger customers with deeper pockets is also being designed, built, and deployed in developing countries and low medium income (LMI) communities. While a lot of these have to remain in pilot phase for the time being until industry and policy plays catchup with the climate, making sure everyone is locked and loaded with their DERs is of critical important to our product roadmap, regardless of class or background.
In my personal life, I live and breathe everything I work on. I am a huge proponent of practicing what I preach in order to motivate others to actually want to follow (as opposed to telling them what to do). In that vein, I lead by example and spend my entire life “kWh hypermiling”, reducing my impact on the environment and ecological footprint in every possible way. I’m a vegetarian and eat only low on the food chain (and that promote cultivation of bottom-feeding organisms that help the planet!); I don’t own a motorized vehicle; instead choosing to take public transportation or my bike, I wash my clothes with gray water in the shower and hang dry all my laundry. These actions might not move the needle much on a global scale in absolute numbers since I started from such a low footprint to begin with, but they have objectively influenced many of those around me and that infectious feedforward and feedback loop is always a highlight to my day outside of my work. I also volunteer with climate initiatives, nonprofits and campaigns, as well as mentor other engineers and young startups trying to impact global issues such as climate change, sustainability and energy poverty through various organizations nationally and globally.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
People can and should make small changes each day to be more sustainable. Choosing to walk somewhere instead of taking fossil-fuel powered vehicles is one example, or simply remembering to shut off all the lights when you leave a room and eat lower on the food chain. Small things have a big impact over time. Also, there is a huge shortage in the world of perspective taking and while this may seem like a soft skill, listening without an agenda and coming in with pure curiosity and desire to help with empathy and humility is absolutely crucial if we are to bridge cultural gaps and geographic borders.
More critically, becoming an engaged and informed global citizen is of utmost importance. Understanding local issues and making sure you act on this by voting politically on candidates and issues, and with your purchases at the store, shows politicians and corporations they need to pivot for systemic change to address the incredible crises we face as a species right now.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
There’s a lot of things parents can do to help inspire the next generation to become engaged in the suitability and environmental movement. Here are a few suggestions:
- Don’t treat climate change as a political issue — this makes it difficult for some people to get involved. More than that, it’s not a political issue, it’s a human issue.
- Learn to communicate and think critically — learning new ways to communicate with people while also thinking critically is the easiest and most effective way to make change. A small silver lining to an otherwise devastating situation, COVID-19 has aided in breaking down a lot of the cross-nation boundaries we had before.
- Get hands on experience if you can — working in different countries, with different communities on different projects can really expand your knowledge.
- Share the right message — instead of thinking of climate change as a red state vs. blue state problem, think of it as a path to energy independence. If we treat it like we’re the stewardship of the environment (which we are!) people will start to listen.
- Develop soft skills — soft skills like listening, critical thinking and leadership are invaluable. Developing these skills will help communicate more effectively the dire need to address climate change now.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have had a lot of great people help along the way, especially when I’ve been completely thrown off my mission by either the devastating politics that pervades this world at times or if I need to lean on someone to bounce ideas off of and deal with difficult hurdles to accomplish my mission. The three people who have really helped guide me are my mentor from EPRI, my best friend from grad school and my best friend from my former company (Haresh, I-kang and Paul). Each of them have helped me across the span of a decade at critical points in my meandering path: from toxic male-dominated work situations (and ironically they are all male!), to critical career transitions that I had to make to leverage my impact better, to dealing with the devastating impact and setback some of the more recent political leaders have made to addressing the global issues we face which have hit me personally hard at many times.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Without batting an eye, I truly believe a movement around female education and empowerment would do the greatest amount of good for both our species and this planet. Outside of my mission to rebuild our energy infrastructure (and address the nexus of food, waste, water and energy), I’m intent on making sure female voices are heard and equally valued. The diversity of ideas, injection of empathy and both compassionate and collaborative culture they instigate introduces far more than the sum or their parts. These traits are also incontrovertibly what we need as we tackle climate change.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
A favorite quote of mine comes from a J.R.R. Tolkein poem titled “The Riddle of Strider” and the quote goes, “Not all those who wander are lost.” It really encompasses the journey I’ve taken throughout my life and career. I’ve always had my mission-driven north star and while the route to get there has never been a straight arrow, the meandering path has taken me on a fantastic journey and I continue to remain as driven as ever to meet the challenges we will face and tackle as a species.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!