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Women in Renewables: Ruby Heard

Ruby is an electrical engineer and founded her own consulting company bringing renewable energy to indigenous communities. She shares her own career journey and some of the barriers she believes prohibit more women from entering the industry.

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Tell us a bit about yourself personally and professionally?

I grew up in the Macedon Ranges area of Victoria, not far from Hanging Rock. I have indigenous heritage on my father’s side which connects us to the Djaru mob in the Kimberley, WA. I was raised to be generous, to care for the environment and to be my unique self no matter how far it took me out of the mainstream. My dad encouraged me to strive for high grades, play sports and to be creative. He introduced me to the fuse box and told me it was my job to replace the fuse when it broke. It was a responsibility that helped shape my career path. Today I stay true to my upbringing and am proud to be a high achieving hippie who plays football and marches to the beat of my own drum.

Meanwhile, my professional alter ego is an electrical engineer in the renewable energy consulting space. My work is predominantly in feasibility studies for solar and energy storage projects, but I also work alongside solar installers in residential and commercial system design and sit on a technical advisory panel for assessing off-grid project grant proposals in Papua New Guinea. I started my career working with Arup as a building services engineer in Melbourne and in 2015 I transferred to San Francisco where I began to specialise in microgrids, complex solar arrays and DC buildings. I had the opportunity to work with Google, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and on the Stanford University Linear Accelerator facility.

Where do you work and what do you do?

In 2018 I was lucky enough to spend six months in Ethiopia working in refugee camps as an Engineers Without Borders volunteer to train refugees to design and install solar mini-grids. I had the absolute best time of my life and it became clear that I needed to focus on my future work on helping our vulnerable communities.

I then returned to Australia and established my company Alinga Energy Consulting. “Alinga” is the Sun Goddess in some Aboriginal cultures and I wanted to honour the sun for being the primary source of energy for this planet. The focus of my company is to assist in delivering responsible, affordable energy access to indigenous communities. I also continue to do work in the commercial sector and have been working with Gold Coast company Engenuity Solutions to design on-site energy systems for over 55’s living villages throughout the East Coast. Having my own company has allowed me to dedicate a significant amount of my time to working on a pro-bono and low-bono basis which has been very fulfilling. In 2019, I was awarded Young Engineer of the Year – Victoria by Engineers Australia.

How did you get into the renewable energy industry/what attracted you to the industry?

I knew that I was an engineer from the moment I read the job description in careers class at the age of 16. I found myself initially being interested in biomedical engineering due to my affinity for biology and the Terminator 2 movie. But ultimately, I knew I was meant to drive positive environmental impacts which was bigger than people. I was a huge advocate for recycling which got me thinking about the huge power consumption of a facility like that. And with that I knew, clean energy was the impact I needed to be a part of.

It wasn’t easy to get where I wanted to be though. I studied at Victoria University and they offered a single class on renewable energy which ran the previous year with low attendance and was cancelled the following year. I thought that Arup would throw me straight into renewable energy projects but found there were little to no projects in the energy space coming out of the Melbourne office. After four years of not getting much closer to fulfilling my dream, I finally requested that I be relocated to somewhere that did have the projects for me. Three months later, I was in California and my career was finally on track.

What do you like most about your job/the renewable energy industry?

I love that every day is different. That is extremely important to me in a career. I love that the solutions I come up with can’t be looked up in a book or found on a webpage. We need skilled engineers to create innovative solutions to the world’s most complex problems. It’s amazing to be a part of that and incredibly fulfilling to be working in an industry that has the opportunity to contribute substantially to stopping climate change. This industry is moving so rapidly, there are constant challenges are we are all learning every single day.

What have been the biggest challenges for you as a woman working in a male dominated industry?

I have been fortunate to have worked in companies and with clients who have a reasonably good gender balance compared to the norm for this field. At Arup I started a women’s breakfast group to encourage the younger female engineers to support each other. I would invite a female senior engineer to join us and share her story. I think a lot of female engineers are quite comfortable with male friendships and co-workers and the challenge can actually be connecting with the other women at work.

Having strong female role models has been extremely important to me as I’ve developed professionally. I am very grateful for the women that have played a role in teaching me and supporting me over the years. What I have learned about women in engineering is that women do want to be leaders in their company, but they don’t want to sacrifice their health or their family life. We look at our supervisors and bosses and we see the subtle things – the tiredness, the aging, the stress. We see the missed family commitments as they consistently find themselves stuck in the office. The biggest issue to women staying in the profession is that we can’t see role models who are demonstrating successful work/life balance.

What do you think would encourage more women to enter the clean energy sector?

Many women I know in engineering became involved because of their passion to make positive change. I don’t think this important aspect of engineering gets enough publicity. The media loves to show images of bridges and hard hats but what appeals to women are the stories of the people whose lives were changed as a result of the engineering. That is what draws women into engineering and into the clean energy sector. If we could do a better job of focusing on those results instead of technical statistics and dollars, then we’ll see more women gravitate to the industry. The clean energy sector is full of feminine energy – creativity, collaboration, understanding and compassion, but we’ve been led to believe it’s all about maths and machines.

What advice do you have for women looking to enter the clean energy sector?

The clean energy sector is a wonderful place for women. There’s a really strong female presence in this industry that wouldn’t have existed in the fossil fuel industry. There are so many ways to be involved in the industry. There are so many professions involved - from engineers to lawyers, finance specialists to installers. The industry is continuously growing too so it’s still a great time to redirect your career towards the clean energy sector.

What do you wish you were told when you first started out in our career?

I wish I had known that most everyone feels like a bit of a fraud sometimes. That a lot of people pretend to have answers they don’t have. That most people you cross in business are misrepresenting themselves or their company in some way. So, don’t compare yourself to others, don’t feel intimidated and don’t get down on yourself. You can be your authentic self, you can admit when you don’t know something and you can forgive yourself for your mistakes.