Alison Erlenbach; Program Manager, Government and Community Partnerships; Pacific Gas and Electric

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The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”

Interviewee: Alison Erlenbach
Program Manager, Government and Community Partnerships
Pacific Gas and Electric

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Alison is a Program Manager of Government and Community Partnerships at Pacific Gas and Electric. Prior to this position, she worked with Bay Area Climate Collaborative and Prospect Silicon Valley to support the development and adoption of clean tech products. As a Campus Ecology Fellow in 2008, she supported the goal of carbon neutrality at the University of Florida by 2030.

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as a Fellow at the University of Florida help shape your career path?
Alison Erlenbach:
My NWF Campus Ecology Fellowship was very important in shaping my career path because it helped legitimize my interest in sustainability by providing funding for a project I was leading. I felt like it lent me a lot of credibility and also really encouraged me and made me realize that this is a career path I can pursue.

DC: What was the top thing that you learned in your professional development through the Fellowship program?
One thing that really stuck with me was meeting so many of the other Fellows and the great staff at NWF. The other Fellows inspired me. Meeting other people my age doing such big things showed me that there were a lot of possibilities and opportunities to pursue in the sustainability space, especially while on a college campus, and age didn’t necessarily have to be an issue.

DC: What are you up to these days?
Shortly after moving to California in 2012, I joined an AmeriCorps program called Bay Area Climate Corps, and they placed me at Bay Area Climate Collaborative, helping cities with LED street lighting conversions, which was a new area for me, but very interesting. I expanded my role from there doing other grant-funded work, primarily helping municipalities around the Bay area become more energy efficient. We merged with Prospect Silicon Valley in 2015, and my role expanded further to include working with startup clients helping them commercialize clean tech products and services–very exciting work, especially here in Silicon Valley.

The experiences and skills I gained over the last 3 years led me to my new position at Pacific Gas and Electric. PG&E is a major utility in California with numerous energy efficiency and clean energy initiatives. My work will involve working with local, regional and statewide partners in developing and implementing energy efficiency and climate change programs.

DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
AE: I want to be part of the transition to smarter cities. That involves creating a more stable, more resilient power grid, connected transportation, and using controllable and efficient technologies like LED streetlights.
California is a great place to be to help oversee that transition, so I’m really happy to be here in the Bay Area working towards that.

DC: What motivated you to begin this path?
When I was in high school, I thought of environmentalism as – well, I hate to use the word “frivolous” – that’s more disparaging than I mean to sound – but I always thought it was just about hugging trees and saving polar bears, and, while it’s great to save wildlife, what about people? I was always really interested in social issues, social equality, politics and economic inequality. Once I got to college, I began to understand that sustainability encompasses environmental, economic, and social issues. Environmental sustainability is very important for social and economic sustainability. For example, people are being displaced by climate change; air quality is very important for people’s health, all of these things are tied up in one another. From there I became very interested in energy systems, GHG management and technology, and that set me on the path that I’m on today.

DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
One of the first books that I was assigned to read in a freshman year Sustainability course was Natural Capitalism by Hunter Lovins, which I found really inspiring. That’s when I first realized the tremendous power technological advances have to propel our society into a more sustainable future. But primarily it’s the people I’ve work with, and former mentors, who influence me. Those people really inspire me because seeing their drive and the cool projects that they work helps show me I can do the same.

DC: You mentioned “previous mentors;” could you talk about some of those mentorship relationships that you’ve had?
One of the most influential mentors that I have had in my career was Dedee DeLongpré Johnston, who is now at Wake Forest but was the Director of Sustainability at the University of Florida when I was there. She oversaw my NWF fellowship as well as an internship I had at the Office of Sustainability. She was able to give me very good advice about my career, my work habits, and how to be a good leader. It was significant to me to see an intelligent and powerful woman in an influential career in this field, and she inspired me to make the most out of my time at the University of Florida. I am very grateful that she made the effort to play such a pivotal role in my career development.

Another mentor that had a major influence on me was T. J. Blasing, who oversaw a summer fellowship I completed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He was fantastic; he taught me so much about our energy system; he was always willing to answer so many questions, and he knew so much about climate change and carbon emissions and sources, and taught me most of what I know about that today.

DC: Do you plan to seek out opportunities to act as a mentor or mentee again?
Absolutely. I ran our internship program for three years at Prospect Silicon Valley, so I have a lot of opportunities to work with college students and those just out of college, and it would be an honor to be considered a mentor.

DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability in the “smart cities” area or perhaps other sectors?
This might come off as shallow, but it really isn’t meant to be. I suggest those who want to make a career in sustainability should “follow the money.” Look at where the money is going for sustainability. For example, there is a lot of funding being funneled into it from state of California toward clean energy projects. Also, our utilities have stringent standards for their overall energy portfolio, which makes funding energy efficiency and renewable energy a necessity. So, I suggest looking at who’s funding what, where is the money coming from – at some point, that is going to be really important for sustaining a career. Seeking out those opportunities is going to open up a lot more possibilities for your career options.

DC: Over the last couple of years, NWF has rolled out the EcoLeaders program, which helps students and young professionals envision their career goals, advance project-based learning, support and network with others, earn certification for project-based leadership skills, and develop career pathways in sustainability fields. You had mentioned that you run the internship program at your organization; how might a project-based leadership certification, such as the NWF EcoLeader certification, make a difference to employers?
I think that project management is something that lot of students struggle with when first starting out– I certainly did. You’re given a big project to do, and maybe it’s one of your first projects, so having some project management guidance is very, very important. A lot of us had to learn on the job, so having a program to teach those skills at a younger age is a fantastic way to empower those students.

DC: Those are all the questions I have; anything you would like to add?
AE: National Wildlife Federation was one of the earliest supporters of my career in sustainability, and I’m forever grateful to have been involved and to continue to be involved in one way or another with such a fantastic organization.
Sustainable Energy

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Date Added: May 15, 2017
Date Last Modified: May 15, 2017