Sustainability Student Brings Sunshine to Local Communities

by Lauren McLaughlin, a journalism intern and candidate in the Journalism Graduate Program 

Safety gear is a must when you’re installing solar panels four stories high on a slanted roof. Looking down on rolling hills and tennis courts below, you’re thankful for hard hats and harnesses. This job is not for the faint of heart. 

Five years ago, Elizabeth Youngblood was installing solar panels at her new job with a renewable energy company. The work was challenging, though Youngblood certainly had the chops: “We had to be lifted to the site via a bucket on a vertical forklift—very fun!”

After a few months of panel installation, Youngblood’s role quickly expanded to include some heavier lifting (metaphorically speaking). She was recruited to the operations team, securing building permit approvals and customer rebates. 

This work was a far cry from her previous job at a pharmaceutical lab that tested skin cancer drugs. Even though she believed in the company mission, the work itself grew monotonous. 

Finding her passion

Youngblood’s passion for environmental science began to emerge when she created a recycling program at work. She became the company’s green coordinator, which was part of their environmental health and safety program.

“I had some time on my hands,” she says. “I liked the idea of making buildings more sustainable. Part of me was considering looking into that, making green buildings and finding ways to conserve resources.”

Elizabeth Youngblood

She also took a few courses at Harvard Extension School to network and learn more about the field of sustainable energy. With some of her green-minded activist friends, she saw the movie An Inconvenient Truth and thought, “Guys, we can do this! We’re going to make a change. We’re going to get off fossil fuels!”

The movie really struck a chord with Youngblood. It drove home the idea that climate change is imminent, and people need to change their lifestyles to mitigate its disastrous effects. “It really made me aware of my choices, to be grateful for the resources I do have, and to be empowered to change my career path to something more personally meaningful, which was within the sustainability field,” she says.

Around that time she was laid off from the pharmaceutical company—their cancer drug didn’t perform well in clinical trials—she suddenly had an opportunity to make that career change. 

She asked some of her fellow Extension School students if they had any potential leads on starting a career in sustainability. When one of her classmates suggested she apply for a women’s-only two-week certification program in solar panel design and installation, she jumped at the chance. “Why not?” she asked herself. “What solar PV (photovoltaic) installation company would not consider a woman who would say, ‘I want to be the only female on your install crew?’ Who would say no to that?”

The certification program was rigorous, but Youngblood is smart. She was among the 50 percent who passed, making her one of the rare female solar panel installers on the market. 

Creating her own job opportunity

Armed with a newly bolstered résumé, Youngblood made her leap into a new career. 

And leap she did. Not one to wait around for a job opportunity, Youngblood created her own. She marched into the office of a renewable energy company and spoke with a manager. Within four days, she had not only secured a new job as an installer, but made for herself a shiny new career in sustainability.

Now as the program manager for a different company (Massachusetts Clean Energy Center), she is the driving force behind their Solarize Mass program. She guides a team of volunteers to increase the use of solar panels in local homes and small businesses. “The program is grassroots, with community engagement and education,” she says. “It’s about getting people interested in solar. We partner with an installer—competitively selecting an installer who offers reduced pricing. It’s like a Groupon for solar!”

It’s easy to see how Youngblood connects with volunteers all over the state. She’s well-spoken and witty, confident and approachable. She looks you in the eye and laughs easily. In short, she’s the type of person you want explaining the ins and outs of a complex topic like solar energy. 

Exciting a community about solar energy

Recently, Youngblood met up with one of the volunteer solar coaches in western Massachusetts to see how they were doing. This woman had organized a progressive potluck dinner from one solar home to another, to excite her neighbors about solar energy.

At the end of the evening, they got 50 people to sign up for solar panels in their homes. This is a feat that clearly impressed Youngblood. 

She beams when she praises the commitment of the program’s volunteer community. Volunteers undergo training and ultimately select the solar panel installers for their community. They often put in long hours, Youngblood says, “sometimes making their role like a part-time job.”

One of the lead volunteers, at the end of her community’s program in 2012, told Youngblood just how empowering and meaningful the project had been to her. Youngblood’s response speaks volumes, “For me, being in a position to offer her tools to run a community adoption campaign around solar, and then seeing her team succeed has been one of the most rewarding parts of my job.”

Indeed. As more communities incorporate solar energy into their neighborhoods, certainly the reward is mutual.

Environmental studies options at Harvard Extension