How to Grow Women's Potential in Cleantech and the Economy

How many middle school girls does it take to change incandescent light bulbs to fluorescents and scale clean energy to everyone in the U.S. and beyond?

That was more or less the challenge put to some 250 young women by Kristina Johnson, CEO of the hydropower startup Enduring Energy, at a recent conference at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab.

One student response: How many incandescent light bulbs does it take to die out before she should replace her entire home’s lighting system?

One might well ask, as the combination of world financial setbacks and energy crises affecting real lives and fuel bills brings the question home -- quite literally. Global economies continue to reel from cataclysmic events, including last year’s off-shore explosion in the Gulf, the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami setting off radioactive releases, and higher oil prices prompted partly by Middle East unrest.

The road to clean energy is looking a little rocky, at best. The U.S. Administration’s new energy security plan, released at the end of March, set a range of targets, including: cutting US oil imports by a third by 2025; expanding US oil and gas production, as well as biofuels markets; encouraging electric vehicles and energy efficiency; and, finally, creating markets for alternative, clean energy, with the goal of generating 80 percent of US electricity from clean sources by 2035.

To the student’s question, Johnson advised changing one bulb right away to see the results, and then waiting to replace the others as they die out -- a thrifty compromise for belt-tightening families.

Until recently Johnson was U.S. Undersecretary of Energy with broad responsibilities ranging from energy efficiency and renewables, to fossil and nuclear energy and environmental and waste management. She knows more than most about the sources and costs of energy -- and cares more than a little about the intertwined future of young women, clean technology and the economy.

“Energy is a women’s and girls’ issue,” she announced to the young women convened at Princeton to learn about advancing their lives and careers through science, technology, engineering and math.

Johnson’s own story is a case in point.