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To Improve our Clean Energy Future, Embrace the Change: Meet Mary Chen

Planetary Solutions in Clean Energy - Internship and Fellowship Program (PSiCE) offers summer research and internship opportunities to students at Yale who are committed to advancing and pursuing a career in the clean energy field. We spoke with students in the initial cohort to learn about their inspiration, goals, and experience through the program

Planetary Solutions in Clean Energy - Internship and Fellowship Program (PSiCE) offers summer research and internship opportunities to students at Yale who are committed to advancing and pursuing a career in the clean energy field. We spoke with students in the initial cohort to learn about their inspiration, goals, and experience through the program.

Do you remember what sparked your interest in Clean Energy? For Mary Chen, a Political Science and Earth & Planetary Sciences major at Yale College, her interest began with a class that exposed the science behind natural disasters. 

Mary wanted to understand how we could attack the problem of man-made natural disasters at the root, instead of waiting to deal with the inevitable aftermath. She decided addressing environmental challenges was where she could make the most impact, and her participation in the Planetary Solutions in Clean Energy internship was exactly where she needed to be. 

“Climate change poses the most threatening existential crisis facing my generation and future ones.”

Previously, Mary worked as a policy analyst at MAYE Corps, a youth-led organization committed to energy equity in the metro-Atlanta area. She analyzed the effects of utility-based policies, such as Georgia Power’s recent rate cases, and the effects of Georgia state policies related to residential energy efficiencies. This experience proved that energy costs are disproportionately harming low-income communities of color. 

“There needs to be better policies to address this inequity. Unfortunately, we are at a junction where we must marshal limited means toward unlimited ends. Fossil fuels are finite resources, but we have alternatives through nuclear and solar energy, which can provide for a better and clean future.”

To push forward as a society, she says the hope lies in the plans that both individuals and organizations have in propelling clean energy forward. 

“Ultimately I can have all these ideas, and I can have all these visions, but I can't go into communities and create changes. The solutions have to come from the communities themselves.” 

Mary recognizes that there is no one right path and we must think deeply about who a sustainable practice actually serves. For example, the use of electric cars is seen as sustainable in the US, but meanwhile, in the countries in Africa where cobalt is mined for the batteries, that is not seen as environmentally safe or sustainable. 

“Clean energy is the future, but it's really hard to think about what clean energy actually looks like. I did an investigation into lands owned by Yale in Maine. The state of Massachusetts wants to be green by 2030, so they need clean energy. One of the ways they want to do that is by developing a hydropower transmission line that would carry power from Quebec, Canada, down through Maine and all the way to Massachusetts. To build that line you would have to cut through forests and wilderness in Maine. What we found is if you cut down all the trees in those areas, the risk of fire would significantly increase. The small communities in these areas do not have the firefighting capacity to deal with that increased risk because the firefighters are all volunteers and lack the necessary equipment. To them, it’s not sustainable at all.”

While we should celebrate every victory along the way, the path to a clean energy future remains an uphill battle. Individuals and organizations can make impactful changes, but clean energy still operates within the confines of capitalism. Corporations must make intentional decisions beyond just “checking a box” to advance clean energy and environmental justice.

“There are organizations helping to build solar panels and working to develop wind power farms, and then there are the banks that are investing in these energy projects, but they're also still investing in fossil fuels. So until corporations fully divest from fossil fuels, what they're putting into clean energy may not offset what they're putting into fossil fuels.”

Mary is also no stranger to the first-hand impacts of environmental changes, whether man-made or natural. Spending a large portion of her childhood in rural China, she observed her grandparents contend with the urbanization springing up around them as they tried to sustain their lifestyle as rice farmers. She saw the erection of massive skyscrapers where fertile rice lands once stood, and, concerningly, the depletion of the groundwater that not only fed the rice fields but also the villager's water needs. Her observations continued while living in Georgia when she had to contend with the summer heat of the south and high energy burden costs. Her and her family relied on ice packs to keep cool. 

“While the events of climate change affect everyone, low-income communities, particularly those of color, are disproportionately harmed by the aftereffects, like the lack of access to necessities: power, water, food and shelter. As a first-generation, low-income student from Georgia, I know firsthand the difficulties of high energy burden costs and increasing hot days. But this reality transcends national borders. Clean energy is a key step in the fight against climate change.”

According to Mary, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way we view the environment, clean energy, and sustainability. Across industries, sustainability is still seen as a trend or a marketing tool and the American response to sustainability is often reactionary. While many in the U.S. will never directly experience the most harmful impacts of climate change in their lifetimes, that is not the case for communities and countries across the world. 

“The sweltering heat affects everyone, but not everyone has access to air conditioning. The tropical storm sweeps through a city indiscriminately, killing power lines, but not everyone can afford to let their refrigerated foods go bad.”

When we spoke with Mary, she was investigating the risk of oil spills in the Artic Regude, one of the last few places of pristine wilderness.

“Oil spills not only present cleanup challenges but have severe impacts that reverberate across the world, from international trade routes to environmental damage to energy security to national security. Investing in the micro-level work of oil spill clean-up ignores the grander macro-level on which we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. There are sustainable and ethical avenues to maintaining both interests—clean energy.”

Mary says transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy will be a gradual process, but it cannot be thought of as a slow burn. (No pun intended). There needs to be a shift in the way we think about energy.

CBEY is proud to celebrate Mary as a graduate of the inaugural Planetary Solutions in Clean Energy (PSiCE) cohort.