Advancing the Energy transition through “Clear, relevant and actionable messages”-Read Marie Donnelly’s interview

Marie Donnelly, new jury member of the Roger Léron Award, shared with us her personal experience of the energy sector, both at the European and local level.

Marie Donnelly is currently Chairperson of Renewable Energy Ireland. She is also a non-executive director of Tipperary Energy Agency; and E3G. She previously worked as Director for Renewables, Energy Efficiency and Innovation for the Energy Directory General of the European Commission. Marie advocates for the facilitation of gender diversity and women representation in the Energy Sector. She is indeed Advisory Board Member of the Hawthorn Club, the only International Network for professional women in the energy industry, promoting the appointment of women to senior corporate positions and facilitating gender diversity in the Energy Sector.

The Covid 19 crisis we are now experiencing in Europe and across the globe will have a devastating impact on our economies. Yet, there might also positive consequences. Do you think it could be an opportunity for our fight against climate change and the acceleration of the Energy Transition?

Covid 19 is a global crisis, relentless in its spread, terrifying in its consequences and brutal in its impact. Likewise, for climate change – except that we cannot see or feel it today so not everybody believes we need to prepare. Much of the resistance to climate change measures comes from a general resistance to change. Normally we are slow to adapt, to change our social, cultural and business practices, to adopt new ways of working and living, to use new technologies. However, Covid 19 has forced to change so many parts of our lives, forced us to change our habits and practices, forced us to do ‘normal’ things differently. And amazingly it works!

We can learn from this horrible experience. We can retain the best of the collaboration and community efforts, we can retain and enhance the efficiencies of our new living and working methods, and perhaps most importantly, when we rebuild our economies, let’s make sure the investment benefits all in society and is sustainable.

Coming out of this crisis will require choices to be made. In revitalizing the economy, governments will have to make choices about where and how much stimulus to inject into different sectors. For example, in passenger transport, should support go to automobile manufactures? If yes, then surely not for more fossil fuel cars; rather a choice can be made to rebuild the industry in the direction of volume production of cheaper electric vehicles through supporting consumer demand for electric vehicles.  Likewise, with power boiler and heat exchange manufacturers. Instead of cash or loan support for the manufacture of fossil fuel heating systems, generate consumer demand for renewable heating through cost reduction leading to increased demand.

Also, now with the price of oil at an almost historic low, subsidies for fossil fuels in both industry and residential usage can be reduced. We can also learn from the experience of the recent financial recession. Keeping people in work not only maintains demand in the economy but also reduces unnecessary stress and hardship for individuals. A key principle should be cohesion and community. 

Through your implication as a Board Member of the Hawthorn Club, you are particularly dedicated to the fight for gender equality. What actions do you think could help achieve a better gender balance in the Energy field?

The Hawthorn Club links women in energy across the globe providing a networking platform for business opportunities but also support for women to advance in their careers and, especially, to join Boards of energy companies. The emphasis is on confidence building – ‘Yes you can do it!’ and mechanisms of raising visibility.

On the latter, women’s visibility in the energy sector tends to be low. For example, at conferences, how many panel members are women, how often is there gender balance in the representation? A very practical step would be to set a target of gender balance at all energy conferences – even to the point of developing a metric such as the % of women speakers, on panels, in the participants. Another possibility is to support women’s’ visibility for example with an online directory of women who would be available to present at conferences. In Ireland we are setting up such an online directory and would be happy to share our experience with others.

After many years spent working for the European Commission, you are now, among others, non-executive director of Tipperary Energy Agency. Does having this double perspective influences your action in the Energy Transition and the fight against Climate Change?

In one way I sometimes feel that I have moved from being ‘gamekeeper’ to ‘poacher’. There are lots of similarities between developing policy and programmes at European level and their implementation at local level, but there are also many differences.

The first is awareness – when developing policy and interacting with colleagues in the Ministries in Member States, colleagues are aware of the challenges and understand the range of mechanisms to be used. At local level, communities, house owners, local authorities are less aware and are distracted by many other issues they have to deal with. Getting people’s attention is hard and in consequence, the message given to them must be clear, relevant and actionable by them.  Equally communication needs to be tailored to the audience – right time, right place and right message!

The second difference derives from the first – at local level there are many, sometimes conflicting, requirements which prevent or slow the adoption and usage of new technologies. For example, planning regulations may have been introduced many years ago before and inadvertently prevent the installation of e.g. solar panels on residential roofs. Leveraged finance is not always available to householders and is not readily understood by all. A lack of scale sometimes inhibits cost reduction and efficiency in the roll out of renewable technologies.

However, on the positive side it is most rewarding to meet and speak to ‘real’ people whose lives have been improved by energy efficiency measures, and who are saving money whilst living in more comfortable conditions.

From your perspective, what quality do Roger Léron Award nominees need to both have an impact on EU policy making and raise awareness within their local communities?

Perhaps the most important characteristics are enthusiasm, energy and charisma!

Enthusiasm is essential as a carrier for the uphill battle involved. An interest in both the welfare of people and communities is a good starting point. Wanting to improve their lives, living situation and quality of life is a motivator for connecting with the beneficiaries on the one hand and the actors on the other. Sometimes this will be difficult, not everybody will agree (at least not immediately) and equally some will not understand. So constant enthusiasm is a prerequisite for launching into the daily journey of bringing people together and helping them to move forward.

Energy in this context is in two parts. One is the obvious one linked to stamina, drive and activity. This kind of energy builds on enthusiasm by connecting constantly with all parties. One day it could be a community within a large apartment complex – trying to get everybody onto the same page, to agree what needs to be done, how and when, and ultimately how it will be paid for. But the second meaning of energy in this context is understanding the science behind the new technologies, how they work, which is the most appropriate for a given situation, and crucially, being able to explain all the complexities in a simple and straight forward way so that all can understand.

Charisma is vitally important and comes from the context of energy. Being confident in your message is a foundation of charisma and allows a connection with groups of people. Communication is most effective when done from within, with outreach to the partner in the dialogue. The message must be simple and clear but entirely true and believable. The foundations of charisma rely on this clarity, honesty but also the flexibility to communicate in terms that the recipient can relate to. For example, when presenting to politicians and policy makers, the message and language must be couched in terms that they use and understand. What are the motivations, pressure points, influencers in order to achieve progress?  Likewise, for residents in a small community the language used must relate to their daily lives – does it cost more, will I still be warm, will the air quality improve, has my neighbor done it already… Charisma allows the message to be carried far and wide and persuades people to make changes.

Tackling the challenges at local, regional and European level requires formidable courage, to identify the challenges, formulate solutions, innovate and test new options, persuade others to try first and then do, and ultimately package all of that in an easily understandable presentation for policy makers, politicians and the public. It is asking a lot, but previous award winners have shown the way, and there are many such leaders in Europe today.

Marie Donnelly is an inspiring woman dedicated to the advancement of the Energy Transition through an action both at local and European level. If you feel inspired by this interview, don’t forget that you now have the opportunity to give voice to outstanding individuals that showed a particular dedication to the fight against climate change!

Don’t miss the deadline: Nominate before May 29th for the 6th edition of the Roger Léron Award!