Ask Leah Louis-Prescott (MEM'18) why she's in graduate school and you'll get a straightforward answer: "I want my career to make a direct impact on climate change."
“My bachelor’s degrees in geology and environmental science exposed me to how the United States lags behind when it comes to renewable energy,” said Louis-Prescott, who worked for the Bureau of Land Management after graduating from the University of Michigan. “I decided to go to grad school because I needed to better understand the nuances of how the energy system functions, why progress has been slow, and how we can advance renewables through policy.”
“The interdisciplinary overview of energy systems I encountered during my first year at the Nicholas School of the Environment helped me to realize that I may be able to make the most impact at the center of the Venn diagram—where technology meets policy meets culture meets business factors,” explained Louis-Prescott, whose 2016-2017 graduate assistantship at the Energy Initiative included research on transportation efficiency and energy data analytics. “That could take the form of renewable project development, although I’m considering other directions, too.”
This summer, a Rudd Mayer Fellowship from the national Women in Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) organization helped Louis-Prescott explore the possibilities by attending WindPower, the annual conference of the American Wind Industry Association. During the four-day event last month, Louis-Prescott visited industry booths and attended talks on everything from energy prices at high wind levels to regulation promoting the zero-carbon attributes of wind.
“The big takeaway for me was that the wind industry is growing and will continue to grow—even after the federal wind tax credit goes away,” Louis-Prescott notes. “I also gained exposure to the breadth of the industry, all the different actors who are moving wind power forward—whether they work for development firms, utilities, manufacturers of turbine parts, or even ExxonMobil, which provides the oil that greases the turbines.”
“Being able to interact with these professionals, talk with them about how they got where they are, seek advice, and network is so helpful as I consider what to do when I graduate,” Louis-Prescott said. She is grateful that the Rudd Mayer Fellowship also includes access to the nationwide WRISE network of female professionals in renewable energy.
Louis-Prescott was encouraged to apply by Duke alumna April Christensen (MEM’16), now a business development associate at Invenergy. “I was a Rudd Mayer Fellow last year," says Christensen, "and those networking opportunities have been invaluable in launching my career—as has the Energy Initiative.”
While Louis-Prescott is increasingly intrigued by renewable project development (and the wind industry in particular), she continues to explore a range of options, maximizing opportunities across Duke University.
Last fall, for example, Louis-Prescott was co-organizer of the Nicholas School Energy Club's Denver Career Trek, which enabled graduate students from the Nicholas School, Fuqua School of Business, and Pratt School of Engineering to spend fall break visiting Denver-area energy companies and organizations.
Louis-Prescott also took part in an interdisciplinary Bass Connections in Energy research team on best management practices for offshore wind development in the United States. “That project had a lot to do with my decision to apply for the Rudd Mayer Fellowship,” Louis-Prescott explained. “And—since our Bass Connections team looked at big trends in both onshore and offshore wind—I was knowledgeable enough to be able to ask interesting questions and have productive conversations with the industry pros I met.”
This summer, Duke’s Stanback Internship program is supporting Louis-Prescott as an intern at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Boulder, Colorado, which she first visited as part of the Denver Career Trek. She is working on an RMI study of when, where, and how residential customers can save money and reduce carbon emissions by switching from fossil fuel-powered household devices to electric devices.
In the fall, she is looking forward to energy coursework offered by the Fuqua School of Business and Duke Law School—along with participating in a Bass Connections in Energy project addressing the regulation of autonomous vehicles. Louis-Prescott will also serve as co-president of the Nicholas School Energy Club.
“The great thing about studying energy at Duke—in addition to the high caliber of professors and comprehensive curriculum—is the variety of out-of-classroom opportunities the school offers, including significant industry exposure,” remarks Louis-Prescott. “I am confident that my education and experiences at Duke are preparing me to make a true impact in the energy sector after I graduate.”
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During Fall Break, the Nicholas School Energy Club sent fifteen graduate students from the Nicholas School of the Environment, Pratt School of Engineering and Fuqua School of Business to Denver, Colorado, as part of the club’s annual Career Trek. The Duke University Energy Initiative contributed financial support for the trip. Leah Louis-Prescott and Eleanor Johnstone, students in the Master of Environmental Management program, coordinated the visits.
The students learned about new trends and developments—and employment opportunities—in a wide range of energy sectors, including clean energy research and technology, electric utilities, energy consulting and the oil and gas industries.
Students' blog posts highlight a few of the companies they visited:
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) – Elihu Dietz
- McKinstry Consulting – Rajeev Rao
- Xcel Energy – Joby Moss
- RES Americas – Saliha Kabaca
- Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) – Sudeep Narsipur
- Clean Energy Collective – Meghal Chaudhari
- Gravity Renewables – Liz Finnegan
- Simple Energy – Soli Shin
Are you a Duke student interested in energy?
Sign up for our email list to stay on top of events and opportunities.
Are you interested in financially supporting career development opportunities for Duke students interested in energy?
Contact Suellen Aldina.
As the spring semester of 2014 drew to a close, Hasan Anwer and Andrew Joiner were on a roll.
During the previous fall, they had entered the Duke Startup Challenge, a yearlong entrepreneurial competition sponsored by Duke University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E). Armed with an idea to create and finance “turnkey” solutions to energy poverty in developing nations, Anwer and Joiner had taken advantage of the Challenge’s extensive developmental resources, which include mentorship, financing advice and networking support.
By the time they emerged victorious from the competition’s clean energy track (sponsored by the Energy Initiative), their nonprofit organization, 501Carbon, had begun to evolve from its embryonic stages toward its current status as a carbon offsets brokerage and project developer with activities in emerging economies across the world.
Over the ensuing summer, they planned to focus full-time on 501Carbon, participating in a two-month accelerator program at Durham’s Groundwork Labs. But just as their business was about to take off, Anwer had to leave the United States.
The Fulbright scholarship that had brought him to Duke to study at the Sanford School of Public Policy required him to return to his native Pakistan upon earning his master’s degree. Unable to secure a waiver, Anwer was forced to go home indefinitely.
What might have seemed an insurmountable obstacle for 501Carbon, however, turned out to be a massive opportunity for its sister venture, EnMass Energy — a micro-utility that will soon begin generating reliable power from agricultural waste in Pakistan and other frontier markets.
Anwer’s stay in Pakistan lasted five months while a lawyer recommended by Howie Rhee, I&E’s managing director for student and alumni affairs, worked to procure him a new visa. He contributed from afar as Joiner, a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment, incubated 501Carbon at Groundwork Labs. At the same time, his long-term plan for EnMass Energy suddenly became a near-term proposition.
“I’d carried the idea [for EnMass Energy] around for years, even before I came to Duke,” Anwer says. “It was always on the horizon. But there was a lot of foundation that needed to be established before it could get off the ground.”
As Anwer awaited his visa approval, he and Joiner began to lay that foundation.
EnMass Energy addresses two major challenges faced by Pakistan’s primarily agrarian economy: an unreliable grid system dependent on an irregular supply of imported fuels, and the lack of infrastructure for disposal of biomass from agricultural waste. Protracted grid outages trigger significant revenue losses for the nation’s industrial sector, which must rely on costly, carbon-intensive energy sources such as diesel fuel to maintain operations.
The idea was simple: EnMass would use abundant agricultural waste to create offgrid power generation solutions. The process of harnessing resources and forming partnerships to make that happen was decidedly more complex.
Separated by nine time zones and more than 7,000 miles, Anwer and Joiner logged 18-hour days over the summer of 2014 to coordinate their efforts as they built two organizations simultaneously. They worked together to pitch the EnMass idea to Umwelt-Projekt-Management (UPM), a Munich-based carbon project developer for whom Joiner had worked before and during his tenure at Duke. With biomass-based steam projects already underway in Pakistan, UPM showed interest in stepping into power generation.
Anwer drew on his own professional network to recruit the Ali Akbar Group, Pakistan’s largest agricultural firm, to establish and manage the supply chain, while Pakistan Engineering Services, a prominent power engineering agency, conducted feasibility studies in target markets. Alongside UPM, these corporations joined 501Carbon as shareholding partners in EnMass Energy.
“It was a lot for any one person to manage,” Joiner says of Anwer’s efforts under uncertain conditions, laughing as he adds, “I felt sort of responsible for Hasan’s emotional state.”
For his part, Anwer deflects credit back in Joiner’s direction. “Things came together at the right time,” he says, noting the salutary effects that EnMass Energy’s growth will create, including reduced carbon footprints for industry and substantial income gains for thousands of subsistence-level farmers whose byproducts will become marketable commodities.
Such impacts are an ethical mandate for both EnMass and 501Carbon. As Joiner says, “We’re always looking to create mutually beneficial relationships.” 501’s offset programs, which generate emission reduction credits from activities that either prevent or trap greenhouse gases, exemplify this idea by helping public- and private-sector organizations meet their sustainability goals, while proceeds from offset sales subsidize the implementation of clean-energy projects in locations such as Uganda and rural China.
David Doctor, the Energy Initiative’s first director of engagement and administration, mentored Anwer and Joiner throughout the Duke Startup Challenge, facilitating valuable connections and encouraging them to hone their message. Doctor, now president and CEO of E4 Carolinas, calls 501Carbon “a ‘triple bottom line’ company. The projects their services support address both economic and energy poverty, reduce carbon emissions, and make money.”
Both Anwer and Joiner are quick to credit Doctor’s mentorship — particularly because they were skeptical of their chances in the Challenge. “We had a service-based idea, and everyone else had products,” Anwer explains. The type of product-oriented thinking coached in the competition would ultimately prove beneficial, however, by helping them to fine-tune their ideas and envision potential partners and revenue sources.
Anwer and Joiner name a bevy of other influential people and programs from their Duke years, including public policy professor Billy Pizer, who now sits on the advisory board of EnMass Energy. Both mention the university’s culture of international engagement as providing crucial models and insight for their operations.
In the fall of 2014, with Anwer still in Pakistan, Joiner enrolled in a course taught by retired Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers and Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. The focus of the course, called “Renewables and the World’s Poor,” made it too perfect to pass up. And while the professors’ wealth of experience alone would have made the time worthwhile, Joiner says, his fellow students played an exceedingly helpful role in his entrepreneurial growth.
“There were people from different disciplines, different backgrounds,” Joiner says, “and a lot of them already had worked in frontier markets. Each class was a long conversation, and every day someone would say, ‘If you want to address energy poverty, here’s how you do it, here are the barriers.’ It really helped me to anticipate a lot of our potential roadblocks, and that’s so important when you’re trying to convince investors to back work in difficult marketplaces.”
Anwer adds that Duke’s global reputation is equally important on that front. The Duke name, he says, “has lent us a lot of legitimacy and credibility, both in Pakistan and in terms of finance.”
Now, as 501Carbon continues to evolve and EnMass Energy prepares to bring its initial project sites online next year, the pace is still nearly as frantic as it was two years ago. Anwer spends significant time overseas directing operations and managing project development for both companies, and Joiner’s role as CEO is no less demanding. But neither man suggests a wish to slow down. “Now that I have experience in the entrepreneurial world,” Joiner says, “I’m where I want to be.”
Pratt's MEMP students are represented by alumni in a number of different industries. MEMP ’12 alumnus Muhammad Anwar Ul Haq has been selected for the World Energy Council’s Future Energy Leaders’ Program, where he'll tackle some of the world’s most complex energy problems in a community of the next generation of energy leaders.