Clean energy’s long road to diversity

Tasha Silicon Ranch 5

Tasha McCarter, RWE’s vice president of solar engineering, joined Episode 37 of the Factor This! podcast to talk about her career, Black History Month, and the energy industry’s pursuit of a more diverse workforce. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

The proverbial light bulb that sparked Tasha McCarter’s interest in energy was an actual light bulb.

A third-grade experiment using a hand crank generator to produce electricity led over time to an accomplished career developing power plants for SunPower, Silicon Ranch, and, most recently, RWE as the company’s vice president of solar engineering.

“I knew that I was interested in something that dealt with turning lights on,” she said.

For McCarter, who is Black, the rise to become one of the energy industry’s engineering leaders was anything but easy. While the industry’s well-known diversity problem is slowly improving, there’s still a long way to go.

McCarter joined Episode 37 of the Factor This! podcast to talk about her career, Black History Month, and the energy industry’s pursuit of a more diverse workforce.

Overcoming isolation

McCarter’s path was always toward a career in engineering. Confident in her skills and constantly reassessing her goals, she was able to navigate an industry that could, at times, feel isolating.

Today, around 60% of the clean energy workforce is white, according to the most recent analysis from E2. Black people make up just 8% of the clean economy, compared to 13% economy-wide. And women represent less than 30% of the sector.

Demographic disparities were far worse when McCarter joined the clean energy industry more than a decade ago. After obtaining a degree in electrical engineering from Tuskegee University and an MBA from Michigan State, she entered a sector destined to thrive, but faced with an up-hill battle to build community.

Before the advent of social media, it was difficult for McCarter to find women, let alone Black women, with an engineering background that looked like hers. It was her resolve and confidence that kept her going.

“It’s challenging, but I deserve to be here,” McCarter said. “I invested time, energy, and effort. I knew where my strengths were, and it took me until a certain point in my life to understand that.”

Social media and virtual interactions have made community-building more achievable today.

McCarter is a member of the Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) organization. She also serves on the boards of the Austin Urban Technology Movement, an organization that connects Black and Hispanic communities to the technology industry, and Calculated Genius, a nonprofit that helps underrepresented youth explore and connect to engineering.

The value of community in clean energy, especially for underrepresented groups, can’t be overstated, McCarter said.

“Once I found my tribe, I was able to not feel isolated and deal with challenges more effectively,” she said.

The hiring challenge

As an executive leader, McCarter knows the challenges associated with recruiting diverse, yet qualified, candidates.

McCarter had the advantage of a blank slate in building out the RWE engineering team. But she still has to use creative recruitment techniques.

“It is difficult to find diverse individuals, but more importantly, diverse individuals with experience. That mix of the two is a challenge.”

She evaluates a candidate’s range of expertise and skillsets, looking for opportunities to mold or shift a role to fit their background, when possible. That can expand the available talent pool and prevent early elimination of diverse applicants, McCarter said.

From there, it’s incumbent upon leaders to invest in their teams and facilitate community-building to retain team members from underrepresented groups.

“It’s one thing to get women in the field. It’s a whole other ball game to keep them in the field,” McCarter said.

An evolving passion

What started out with a hand-cranked generator, McCarter’s passion for energy has evolved with time and experience.

She first saw renewable energy as a path to energy security. The U.S. was still involved in the war in Iraq, with oil at the center of the conflict.

McCarter knew people who fought, and died, in the war.

“I said, if I’m going to go into a sector, I’m going into a sector that makes a difference, that takes boots off the ground,” McCarter said.

In the years since, that focus has evolved to include fighting climate change. She lived through Winter Storm Uri, which left millions of Texans without power in February 2021. The first-hand witnessing of extreme weather once again solidified McCarter’s purpose.

“I can see the momentum; I can feel the momentum,” she said. An optimist with an eye on the path forward, she added: “I look forward to the years where we can reverse some of the damage that we’ve done to the planet.”

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Author: John Engel