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11 June 2020
Women in Wind 2020 Q&A: Karen Conover
The Women in Wind Global Leadership Program sat down with Karen Conover, one of this year’s Mentors, to chat about her pathway to renewable energy and issues facing women in the wind sector.
Karen Conover is a Vice President of DNV GL Energy, a global risk management company with multiple renewable energy advisory and certification offices in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. She is the founder and former CEO of Global Energy Concepts (GEC), a leading consulting engineering company that specialized in the analysis, design, evaluation, testing, and management of wind energy systems and projects, prior to its acquisition by DNV in 2008.
Karen has been working in the renewable energy industry for more than 30 years and she has been a member of the AWEA Board of Directors since 1997. She is a Past President of the AWEA Board, has served as Chair of WINDPOWER, and on the Nominations, Membership and Awards Committees. In 2010, she was recognized as the Industry Woman of the Year by Women of Wind Energy and in 2012, she received the Britt Theismann Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Wind Industry from AWEA.
How did you first become interested in renewable energy and joining the clean energy transition?
I became interested in renewables at an early age, about 10 years old. My father took me to an environmental science fair (he worked for an environmental agency), and I was captivated by the wind and solar exhibits. From that time forward, I pursued an involvement with renewables – first through science projects in high school, then in choosing a university and degree program. I even wrote my college application essay on the benefits of recycling and renewables.
After graduating with an engineering degree, I was fortunate to get a job with a small consulting company working with wind developers and energy research organizations, primarily on the early California projects. I’ve worked in renewables ever since – more than 35 years now.
Tell us about your expertise and passion in the sector. How has this business area changed over the course of your career so far? For you, what is the next “space to watch” in renewable energy?
I love being a consultant because it allows me to work with clients across all sectors of the industry. The breadth and depth of our projects – geographies, technologies, project sizes, client types, etc. – is huge. The variety and the fast pace required to meet clients needs suits my personality and work style. I’ve never lost my passion for the industry because there’s so much more to do and I still feel like I’m making a meaningful contribution to improving the world every day.
When I started in the industry, there were only about 1,000 MW of wind energy installed in the US. We have now more than 100 GW. The business has changed over the course of my career in every way – technology has advanced, reliability has increased, costs have dropped, and industry players have consolidated. I think the change in market drivers is a particularly interesting space to watch as the commercial and consumer interests replace the policy incentives in driving demand for renewables.
What sort of challenges did you encounter in entering the sector?
There are still many challenges for women working in male-dominated fields and I think we are only just beginning to recognize the real value of a diverse workforce. Each of our unique perspectives and experiences brings something special to the table and our collective companies are stronger when we find ways to capitalize on our diversity.
Sometimes people get in their own way and create barriers to their own growth. One of the challenges I’ve faced is getting beyond the fear of failure or feelings of inadequacy. I have personally benefited from many mentors and sponsors, almost all male, at various decision points in career. They encouraged me to stretch quite a bit more than I might have done otherwise. As a result, I try to encourage the women I work with to reach beyond their comfort level and fully recognize their own value and capabilities as often as I can.
Changing the status quo is always difficult – particularly when things are “not bad.” But “not bad” isn’t the same as “good.” Deciding to start, grow, and sell a business were significant achievements for me in that I had to make conscious decisions to change the status quo and head in a new direction. The encouragement of others made a difference but at the end of the day, the decisions and consequences of the decisions were mine.
If you had to pick one key issue facing women in the wind power sector, what would it be and why?
Work-life balance is an issue for everyone. I’ve always loved my work but it’s been difficult to fit it into a 9-5 weekday box or to stop thinking about a problem just because I leave the office. The idea that women can have it all is flawed. We may be capable of doing anything, but we can’t do everything at the same time. I think it’s important to recognize the need for work-life balance and identify strategies for keeping sane. Flexible work schedules help, and the shift to remote work for many of us during the pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink many workplace policies.
But it’s complicated and unique to each individual’s circumstances and values. At the end of the day, we have to all make choices that are right for ourselves. I have two daughters. My choice was to continue to work when they were young and travel sometimes kept me from home. There’s no doubt that our family made compromises. But I hope my example encourages them to go out and change the world in their own ways.
Finally, what do you hope to achieve as a Mentor in the Women in Wind Global Leadership Program? How will you contribute to the next generation of female leaders in the sector?
As a mentor, I expect to get just as much out of the program as the mentees! It’s inspiring to engage with the next generation of leaders in our industry and I love the energy and enthusiasm that new entrants bring to the sector. The program allows me to share the knowledge and experience I have with eager participants who have fresh perspectives and new ideas.
I hope to contribute by providing support, encouragement, information, and context to my mentee and others in the program. Maybe I’ve encountered some of the challenges that they face or the opportunities that they are pursuing. I hope I can offer advice, provide access to resources, and help expanded the network of the program participants.
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