Electric, gas, solar, wind—the world cannot function without energy. However, the rampant pollution and lack of equity that mark today’s energy reality demand urgent answers. Changemakers come from all walks of life. Today we have a chance to see how young leaders are coming together to push for energy solutions that can provide a better future for all.
A Vision to Revolutionize Energy Leadership
Student Energy is a global movement of 50,000 young people across 120 countries with more than forty student-led chapters at post-secondary institutions. “Student Energy envisions an energy system that serves the world’s needs in a way that is economically, socially, and environmentally equitable. We operate on a unique youth empowerment model, which means that our initiatives are co-created with young people, for young people,” says Shakti Ramkumar, Student Energy’s director of communications and policy.
How did this remarkable organization come into existence?
The Founding of a Movement
In 2008, three students, Janice Tran, Kali Taylor, and Sean Collins, envisioned a single international student conference to bring together students from all disciplines to learn from industry experts—as well as from each other—about energy technologies, energy systems, and holistic solutions. In 2009, this first international energy conference, where 350 students and experts convened in Calgary, was meant to be the end of their efforts.
However, the response from attendees was overwhelming, with many demanding to know when the next conference was being held, whether they could attend, and even if they could help to plan it. With such a positive response, the founders knew they needed to build on this groundwork.
After a second international summit was held, Student Energy was established as a nonprofit in 2011 to address the needs of students from around the world more effectively. Co-founder Collins remarks, “We began to think about what else the organization can do to support young energy leaders as they think about how they’ll engage in the energy transition.”
Through a series of consultations with their global network, the organizers identified the needs of students and developed programs to meet them. To address a lack of educational resources, Student Energy created its energy systems map as a key educational tool for students to learn about energy and technology. Next, to build robust local networks to target localized energy issues, the organization established its chapters program.
Meanwhile, the Space for Youth program works directly with governments, other organizations, and companies to provide young people with opportunities to interact directly on energy issues and boost their influence on decision-making and planning.
“If we continue to listen to the problems and challenges of our youth audience and respond to those with articulate and intelligent programming, we can achieve some pretty significant success as an organization and as a movement,” Collins explains.
However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
COVID-19 Brings New Challenges and Opportunities
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed vulnerabilities in global economies and social safety nets. Those hit the hardest have been people experiencing poverty and marginalization, including young people.
Ramkumar states that disruptions in education, internships, and other opportunities have led to a rising demand for accessible education and job training programs.
“Although we have always prioritized virtual learning due to the global nature of our work, the last year has made us realize that this will become a growing priority over the coming years,” she says.
Students need support through education, training, and mentorship opportunities to overcome barriers to future success and development in their energy careers.
Another difficulty is that young people who want to work on climate solutions, often do not have access to resources and means to develop know-how.
Student Energy’s most ambitious project yet hopes to tackle this problem—the Student Energy Solutions Movement will mobilize $150 million to fund 10,000 youth-led clean energy projects around the world by 2030. The initiative will back action led by young people not just through project funding, but also through education, training, and mentorship programs.
But students can’t do it alone. Education providers have a role to play in motivating students and guiding them towards the best resources available, including Student Energy initiatives. “We would like to see education systems creating more opportunities, programs and internships like these to help young people around the world to access the skills and training needed to kickstart their careers in energy,” claims Ramkumar.
Initiatives Create Local Innovations
So far Student Energy has spurred numerous grassroots initiatives through leadership fellowship programs around the world.
The GridLight program across Australia, Germany, Spain, and the UK, for example, encouraged electricity consumers to reduce their carbon footprint through a traffic color-coded lamp, placed in people’s homes. When the green light is on, the grid is less carbon-intensive than when it is yellow or red.
In Turkey, a team of students at the Middle East Technical University developed a solar-powered electric scooter charging station to provide students with an environmentally friendly transport option.
And children and adolescents in Bolivia participated in educational workshops about climate change and energy, so that they could be part of action against environmental degradation.
Alumni Tell Their Stories
For Tianna Philippot from Canada, getting involved with Student Energy changed her life. She was introduced to the organization while working in a renewable energy research role. She explains, “I realized my passion for clean energy and saw Student Energy as an opportunity to develop my knowledge to continue building a career within the industry.”
As the North American regional coordinator for the Global Youth Energy Outlook research program, she connected with young people in the region to ensure they had the opportunity to voice their opinions on energy issues. The information gathered will be presented at the upcoming United Nations climate change conference COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.
While Student Energy chapter president at the University of Manitoba, Philippot worked on a range of projects. Feasibility studies for Experimental Lakes Area’s research facilities in Ontario, Canada, looked into transitioning from diesel generators to solar energy and efficiency retrofits. Students attended a workshop where they learned to use AutoCAD software to draft mechanical drawings to support the transition.
Philippot was also involved in a video project that highlighted how energy is distributed on the university campus, focusing on Migizii Agamik (Bald Eagle Lodge), the Indigenous student cultural center, a net-zero carbon building.
In addition, her research into hot water solar collectors to heat greenhouses is benefiting northern communities in Manitoba that use the greenhouses as heat growth chambers.
“Student Energy has given me confidence, connections, and experience that has allowed me to enter the workforce determined to foster just and sustainable engineering strategies,” states Philippot.
Philippot is now a researcher at the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.
Chibunna Ogbonna from Abia State in Nigeria studied chemical engineering at the Federal University of Technology Owerri, although his informal studies focused on renewable energy.
During the first youth forum at the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi, senior director of global partnerships at Student Energy, Helen Watts, prompted Ogbonna to apply to participate in the Global Youth Energy Outlook program. In February 2020, he became the regional coordinator for sub-Saharan Africa.
While Ogbonna’s work in sustainability precedes his involvement with Student Energy—he co-founded a clean energy company in 2017—his commitment grew during his time as regional coordinator.
He explains, “During COVID-19, when we were all in lockdown in Nigeria, we conceived an idea to start a social impact project focused on powering healthcare facilities in Nigeria because in Africa only about 28% of healthcare facilities in sub-Saharan Africa have access to reliable electricity. A lot of facilities are based in remote areas. A lot of issues are connected to not having sustainable electricity—people could not access vaccines or basic medical care because there was no power in their healthcare facilities.”
In October 2020, the Lighting Up Nigeria Initiative was launched. The project didn’t just involve installing solar panels and storage batteries in community healthcare facilities but also renovating dilapidated buildings. “Working hand in hand with community leaders, we paid for materials and labor. The whole community got involved,” says Ogbonna, who hopes to find partners to join the project.
He believes Student Energy has led him to a policy role. He declares, “In my role as regional coordinator, it seems that I have a voice, especially in representing my region, so I’m thinking I will take a master’s in policy development. In the future, I could be sitting on a panel of clean energy industry leaders. I discovered that policies make things work.”
Ogbonna is currently participating in a sustainability program at the International Sustainability Academy in Hamburg, Germany.
*Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for nonprofit organizations, trade unions, the education sector, and government agencies.