When people talk about renewable energy, we often think about the physical parts like solar panels, wind turbines, and electricity grids. But the renewable energy industry, like any other large-scale infrastructure, relies heavily upon the expertise, skills, and resources of a number of industries. It’s with the help with people like Jen Aitchison that Ontario’s renewable energy industry has been well-served in that regard.
Jen had worked in the insurance industry for more than 5 years before she ventured into renewable energy. At that point in her career, she was growing frustrated with risk management insurance, and wasn’t sure she saw the “point” – she wanted to be more proactive in making a positive change in the world. Jen had grown to love and appreciate nature after spending time on Canada`s west coast; she wanted to play an active part in giving back, by adding value to the sustainable industry movement.
At the time, there was little information available on solar energy development in Ontario. So Jen attended meetings about the Green Energy Act, and spent her own time learning more about the industry as a whole. She identified a business opportunity and a business plan to explore a new path for insurance. When she originally proposed the idea, she was given the green light to work on what was seen as a small “pet project” – the insurance industry at the time had focused primarily on oil and gas, and had little experience with solar and other new renewable energy technologies.
Jen started identifying the obstacles, opportunities, and risks for solar energy development, and looked for ways to knock down barriers for these projects, and to help solar developers successfully finance their projects. Jen focused on developing policies and shared knowledge with other insurance companies to help them understand these new project types, how to manage risks, price effectively, and provide adequate coverage.
We asked Jen what it was like to “feel out” a brand-new space in an industry, and some of the challenges associated with it. From an insurance perspective, Jen explained that determining how to price out the risks and having insurance industries understand how to do it came with a learning curve. For example, leasing rooftops for solar panels was a big challenge for the industry at the time. No one had previously understood or developed leases or covenants related to risk management techniques for roof space. Another unique challenge related to risk management was the fire risks associated with a solar panel installation. This was new territory for firefighters, so Jen’s team created a fire safety manual to close the knowledge gap between firefighters and industry professionals. Working together with the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, the manual has been rolled out provincially, and there is now official training in place for firefighters. This was the culminating success of bringing two very different industries to the table, by having both firefighters and technical staff understand a new emerging partnership in risk management.
With a direct involvement in this process, the insurance industry is able to establish rates with a good understanding that balances between risk and feasible pricing. With insurance, project developers and building owners can move forward knowing their potential risks are mitigated, that the project is safe, and will be maintained properly.
Involvement with WiRE:
Jen’s first brush with WiRE was at a Women in Wind Energy (WoWE) conference. With the rapid emergence of industry organizations like the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA) and the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA), Jen and the WiRE team wondered why there didn’t seem to be an all-encompassing group to unite these interests. So instead of having each technology and industry fighting for a “piece of the pie”, the WiRE founders decided to cast an all-encompassing industry net, with a focus on supporting women in renewable energy, and providing greater STEM opportunities for women in the field.
Working in the insurance industry, Jen is no stranger to the challenges of women in male-dominated spaces. For Jen, WiRE helps carve out a space for both starters and veterans alike. It encourages cooperation, networking, and also engages men in that conversation. Regardless of industry, diversity in opinions, skillsets, and mindsets can be a powerful asset to build resiliency and innovation in business models.
Finally, we asked Jen what advice she has for women looking to grow their careers in renewable energy. Her advice is to be well-equipped to play the long game. Be patient, and put in the time to make sure you're doing your due diligence. Giving yourself the space and understanding to fail is a normal part of one's career; with experience, you'll get better at identifying the right time to keep trying, and the right time to change directions. Focus on being passionate and pursuing the opportunities that fuel that enthusiasm. Don`t let the naysayers discourage you - let them be the fuel that fires your energy to pursue what is important to you. Jen encourages young professionals to fight through the fear and be an active and engaged team member in the workplace, and look for ways that things can be improved. Finally, and perhaps most importantly - reach out to your networks and mentors for guidance. As noted previously, diversity is strength, and your professional networks can provide invaluable insight and guidance to help young professionals make the best informed decisions in both their personal and professional lives.
By Jennifer Ng, WiRE Volunteer