This week on Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich hosts Meredith Adler, Executive Director of Student Energy. Student Energy is a global movement of 50,000 young people, fostering a new generation of energy leaders through grants for clean energy entrepreneurs, skills workshops, and youth engagement in governments and corporations.
Under Adler’s leadership, Student Energy has undergone a rapid expansion, during which time she’s gleaned some valuable insights about the role of youth in the energy transition, the true extent of climate anxiety, and how to turn generational climate conflict into cooperation.
Below are edited highlights of the discussion, condensed for brevity.
Michael Liebreich Meredith, can you talk us through what Student Energy does?
Meredith Adler Student Energy is a movement of 50,000 young people in 130 countries who are creating the next generation of energy leaders. We focus a lot on skill and capacity-building for young people; we have programs in everything from what is a solar panel to getting your first job, or starting your first business. And we really focus on the capacity-building piece; on what is it that brings more people into the fold, and how we do that at scale, because we need way more climate energy people and workers. The other end of Student Energy is what we call Space for Youth, and that's where we work with governments, companies and organizations on meaningful youth engagement. We try and show that young people aren't just this scary force that's going to protest you; they actually are people who really want to dive in and solve these problems with you, and we just need to create better forums really for that to be able to happen. And a lot of what we're doing is exposure. Even at the top schools in the United States and the UK there are very few classes being taught on climate change and there's very little practical education going on. It doesn't make sense for everybody to need to do a PhD - that's going to take you eight years from now to do undergrad to PhD; we are past 2030 at that point, you've missed a whole section of what needs to happen on climate. Whereas, if we can be upscaling people faster and getting them in, I think that can do more. Professors aren't exposed to enough; not enough people know what these careers look like.
MLOne of the things that we've talked about in the past has been your Guided Projects Program. Perhaps it's a good time to give me an update?
MAThe Guided Projects program provides an initial grant for young people between $10,000 and $30,000, as well as two years of coaching and mentorship to get their first major energy project off the ground, so that they're ready to become entrepreneurs, so that they have the know-how to do solar installation, energy efficiency projects. I think something that's often overlooked is that there's a lot of incubators and accelerators and competitions around R&D, which is very important - we still need to invent new things - but there's very little support for people to get what we know works in the ground. And there's so much need for that, especially in the Global South.
MLI'm a big believer in these bottom-up approaches. I see too many billionaires want to spend $10 billion saving the planet and they don't really know where to start.
MAI've had some hilarious conversations with billionaires about what they think the solution should be to get more young people engaged, or to build a workforce. And a lot of it will fail at the point of dictating what they feel people should do. For Student Energy, a big thing that we've instituted is a youth empowerment model, in which young people always lead on what it is they want to do. As an organization, our whole thesis is to be the superhighway of their experience, with people that get things out of the way and help them move; to pull all the pieces together quickly, so that the solution that they see in front of them can actually be implemented faster. There are plenty of people who know how to install a solar panel at this point, but there aren't plenty of people who know how to make that acceptable in a community, or make that business model work for where they are.
ML Do you train your students to be optimistic and engaged? Are your students self-selecting because they're optimistic? And then the other students who are not optimistic are self-selecting to go on protests and be morose?
MAThe folks who are protesting and upset are not necessarily mutually exclusive from the people who are in our programs. There's some people in our programs who do both, and I'm a big advocate of the fact that in the grand scheme of change, you always have that; you always have a force that's pushing and feels uncomfortable, and then you have folks who are coming in behind. Successfully completing an event or a research project doesn't sound as flashy as throwing a giant protest, but it is something that's much more positive for a lot of young people as well. I think you'd be surprised to find out the number of young people who are going to those protests but who also are interested in working in a clean tech company, or in doing something in climate and energy finance. I think that young people are getting too much of a bad rap in the media for just being depressed and angsty all the time, when really we just need to create more openings for them to feel like they're able to do something. For instance, our leadership team in Nigeria is amazing, our leadership team in Mexico is amazing. A lot of these young people who have been excluded from the climate and energy space have so much gumption; if you ever want signs of hope, that's what I would point to.
MLWhat I've been trying to do on this podcast is to draw out the arc of change, because it’s really empowering to see that longer arc, but the media doesn't focus on it. And young people don't have the perspective to draw out those lessons themselves.
MA I promote this podcast all the time for this reason, I sincerely do. And I think that's a lot what we're getting at with intergenerational collaboration. Everybody you know who works in climate and energy probably has some crazy story about the circuitous path that brought them here. And now we need to get to a place where this is super common, where it's like trade school - we're just churning out people who can work in climate and energy to make all of this happen. And I think that's the arc that we're all on.