Yesterday was beautifully sunny, with a crunch of snow on the ground and air so cold I got frost on my eyelashes. This morning, I woke up to a foot and half of snow on the ground, content to not shovel my driveway and instead work from home, venturing outside only long enough to play a few minutes of fetch with my dog. Fortunately for me, throughout this winter storm my little house has stayed cozy-warm, with candlelight by choice and not necessity.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the unsung heroes of the utility industry, the people who answer gas-leak calls in the middle of the night, who trim trees, climb poles, weld pipes, and do the math in the background that makes sure my lights turn on when I flip the switch. It’s pretty miraculous how much energy society just casually moves around, expecting heat and power at the tips of their fingers.
For those of you who don’t know, I work in the utility industry, so I might be slightly biased. I spend forty hours a week thinking about the challenges and opportunities that come with our tremendously powerful energy system. Most of my conversations are with people who you’ve never heard of, who play some integral role in delivering power to the Northeast.
Now, maybe I’m drinking some of the corporate kool aid here, with the rhetoric of “customers first” and “resilient grid infrastructure” and “clean-energy future” ricocheting around my brain like a runaway bouncy ball. But in the last year and half, in my first job as an engineer, I have been delighted to see how little choices make big impacts. I get to chat with the guy who makes sure there’s enough gas in the pipes to power my furnace, and talk shop with the team that’s developing our offshore wind portfolio.
The utility industry is a place I never thought I’d be. The most I ever thought about our energy infrastructure was to complain when the power went out for more than a few minutes, and to condemn utility companies that are hindering the clean-energy transition trying to turn a profit.
I’ve learned a lot since I started, and with a particular focus on decarbonizing the natural gas infrastructure I’ve realized that I would much rather be in the (literal and figurative) trenches of the industry, asking questions and finding creative solutions, than where I sat for four years as a college student, hoping that The Energy System would magically transform for a better future.
I get to know the people—focused on safety, reliability, and affordability—who ask questions not because they are fundamentally opposed to change, but rather because they know we got to where we are on purpose, and they want to be intentional about finding the best possible next steps. I get to know the systems—with very real design limits and sunk costs—that can be retrofitted overnight. I get to know utility detractors—well-intentioned but often ill-informed—who sometimes let the perfect be the enemy of the good and forget that the energy transition is a team effort. But most importantly, I get to look at options—a portfolio of varied solutions—and fit ideas together like complicated puzzle-pieces in the sticky, uncertain place of change.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m as committed to a zero-carbon future as the next environmentalist, and I am a firm believer that we need pendulum-swing rhetoric to garner the political will to move the needle. But for me, my engineer’s brain delights in knowing the constraints. Somehow, having limits makes finding solutions that much more exciting, and I love spending my days in the gray area of No One Right Answer.
In a recent conversation with my teammates, one described hydrogen fuel cell trucks as “a literal rocket engine under the hood!” And she’s not wrong. We get to think about biofuels to replace diesel, increasing renewable generation around the world, renewable natural gas, smart grids, geothermal energy, electrification, and (my current pet project) zero-carbon green hydrogen as tools in our decarbonization toolbelt.
Don’t worry, I’m not deluded: in fact, I probably know better than most the very real barriers to avoiding total climate collapse in the next century. But for now, I’m choosing to pick my battles and narrow my focus to the impact I can have, one conversation with an unsung hero at a time.
Lillie grew up on a forty-acre hay farm in Central Oregon, making the trek to Michigan to study mechanical engineering and sustainability. After graduating in 2020, she moved to Rochester, NY, where her day job as an engineer for the local gas utility funds her outdoor adventures, love of books, various craft projects, and investment in her new community.