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Interview by Rachel Sorenson
“What’s the key driver of the renewable energy sector? Innovation. Innovation requires diversity.” — Yisha He
China has created a position for itself as the global leader in the renewable energy industry. Despite its success, the country still faces many energy challenges, and the reality of manufacturing and renewable energy projects is that they are largely male-dominated.
And when one industry lacks a perspective from both men and women, challenges arise. Yisha He, an entrepreneur and Chairwoman of UNISUN Energy Group, is a powerful player in challenging the male dominant narrative. She has been focused on promoting and encouraging women to not hesitate to follow their dreams and get what they rightfully deserve as they embark on and progress in their careers.
After studying abroad, Yisha returned to China and devoted herself to the clean energy industry. She established a number of renewable energy enterprises and accumulated abundant experience in the financing and project management in the industry. As Chairwoman of the Board of the Unisun Energy Group, she takes charge of the decision-making in terms of the Group’s global business strategic development, and the operation and management of the Group.
She also co-founded “Women in Renewables Asia” as a women’s self-help development platform to drive gender diversity across the renewable energy sector, while creating greater value and encouraging social innovation by diversifying the sector’s industrial development.
Given Yisha’s experience and leadership, we asked her about UNISUN’s achievements in the sector, China’s evolving energy landscape, and solutions oriented at empowering women and encouraging women to get involved in this industry.
What would you say has been your biggest achievements with UNISUN Energy Group? What other achievements are you proudest of?
UNISUN Energy Group is dedicated to bringing the benefits of clean energy to a larger community. So far, we have run operations in over 100 cities across five continents.
We have worked with more than 30 prominent companies such as Unilever and Uni-President to develop and invest in PV projects and we’ve also collaborated with Wahaha, China’s largest beverage producer, on a large renewable energy project to promote green manufacturing. We’ve installed distributed solar panels on the roofs of their 34 factories in 21 cities across 16 provinces. The project will generate 60 million MWh a year and supply 80% of the electrical needs of Wahaha in China.
UNISUN has invested heavily in technology and has more than 40 patented clean energy technologies, which help reduce the cost and yield higher profits for our customers. For instance, we have developed UniCare, China’s first data-sharing operations and maintenance (O&M) platform for power plants, to remotely manage those power plants located at different latitudes. UniCare provides 24-hour monitoring, expert help and support, efficient O&M service at a low cost, thus reducing the operational costs and produce higher revenue.
What do you think are the largest energy challenges facing China today? What are some solutions to these challenges?
Currently, China is still using huge amounts of coal, although China aims for renewables to account for at least 35% of energy consumption by 2030. There is still a long way to go to reach that goal. The government should accelerate the reform in the energy sector to reduce the share of power generated by coal and raise the portion of renewable energy.
Out of that, renewable energy is often wasted in northwestern China as there is not enough transmission capacity to absorb it. Therefore, it is essential for the government to establish an effective mechanism to absorb and utilize renewable energy. For instance, the government can develop a long-term plan for renewable energy, create a low-cost renewable power generation roadmap, and launch a new renewable power quota system.
Another thing is that China’s renewable energy companies rely heavily on government policies for development. However, China’s renewable energy policies (especially PV policies) have been unstable, making renewable energy a much less attractive investment prospect.
In my opinion, technology innovations and effective and efficient management will help reduce the cost, and China’s renewable energy companies won’t have to rely on government subsidies. With effective and efficient management, renewable energy companies can shed excess capacity, and we shall work to raise public awareness of the renewable energy sector.
How do you see China’s renewable energy industry evolving in the coming years and decades to reach these ambitious goals?
Technology innovation will allow renewable energy companies to lower renewable power plant module prices and increase generating capacity, thus making electricity more affordable and yielding more revenue with a larger market share.
Traditionally, a power centralized utility would sell electricity to numerous homes and businesses. There were one seller and many buyers. In the future, along with the reform in China’s power market, electricity companies will be able to sell power directly to home users and businesses. There are projects in the pipeline aiming to take electricity from a region where electricity is abundant and carry it a long way into a region where electricity falls short of demand.
The multi-energy complementary system featuring a mix of different types of renewable energy (such as PVs and wind farms) has taken into consideration the conditions of the local community. The government has launched pilot projects to promote the system nationwide.
Microgrids are also growing rapidly in China. They provide energy independence, efficiency and protection during emergencies. China will encourage the deployment of local energy resources and microgrids, which are expected to lower overall costs for customers while offsetting the need to build the expensive substation.
Many renewable power plants cannot generate enough electricity and O&M support providers are needed to help improve the efficiency of renewable power plants and lower the costs, thus generating higher revenue. Our company also provides secure and reliable asset management for solar power plants, wind farms and energy storage equipment.
You’ve been a strong advocate for women in renewable energy. What are some key issues that need to be addressed to encourage more women to work in the renewable energy industry?
It is a well-known fact that the global renewable energy sector continues to be male-dominated. Statistics show that women make up only 35% of the workforce in the global renewable energy sector. Gender inequality is even more prevalent at decision-making levels.
The barriers affect the hiring of women in renewable energy include less access to decision-making spaces; discrimination by men in the workplace; and inequality in pay and promotions.
We need to create more policies and programs to encourage more women to work in the sector and introduce effective practices to encourage the integration of female workers into their organizations and close the gender gap. The government should develop more supporting policies to encourage more women to join renewable energy.
The sector should offer more technical training for women wanting to work in the sector and launch more campaigns to promote gender equality. Renewable energy companies should have more women at the executive level and implement workplace policies that help women stay in the energy field and provide more career opportunities.
What are some key issues that need to be addressed to encourage more women to work in renewable energy?
As you may have noticed, there are vastly more male representatives than female in renewable energy. Young female professionals in renewable energy often need to work harder than their male peers to earn recognition or praise. Few opportunities are given to women to prove themselves.
Women are deemed physically weaker than men and hence people think that they are less suitable for the jobs that require ferocity and physical power, such as working at renewable power plants. However, women in the field have already proved that they can perform as good as men if they are given the opportunity.
Women are limited by their mobility to take up jobs where they have to travel or relocate for a longer period, as the locations of large renewable energy construction projects are often in remote areas. This is especially disadvantageous for women, many of whom are expected to do chores and take care of their children.
Addressing these barriers is essential to increasing women’s participation in the sector, which in turn will attract and retain more talent and meet the skills needed in this growing industry.
What are some good examples of initiatives or policies that can help women become key players in the renewable energy sector?
There are various programs, campaigns and initiatives and supporting policies around the world which are designed to empower women in the renewable energy sector. Equal by 30 is one of those campaigns that work towards equal pay, equal leadership and equal opportunities for women in the clean energy sector by 2030.
The campaign provides leadership, and share experiences and lessons learned on gender diversity programming and initiatives, which UNISUN has taken part of. We have developed and implemented commitments in line with the campaign, which is advancing women throughout our ranks and into leadership positions. We have also shared our success with others and learned from other signatory companies’ experiences.
Based on the knowledge and experience I’ve learned from the campaign, I co-founded the Women in Renewables Asia (WiRA), an NGO founded to empower women who work in renewable energy through training and coaching. It intends to develop their full personal potential and increase their confidence and skills to become effective employees, decision-makers, entrepreneurs and leaders in the renewable energy sector.
As the Chairwoman of WiRA, I’ve worked with my colleagues to discuss what is needed to give more visibility to women in the sector, thereby striving for more gender diversity and strengthening the renewable energy sector.
What advice would you give to young women who want to get into renewable energy in China?
Women need to realize that they have so much to offer because they are a minority and different from men. What’s the key driver of the renewable energy sector? Innovation. Innovation requires diversity. Their thought process, ideas, and feelings may be different from those of men. That is exactly what a workplace needs: a wide range of views.
Women should feel free to be themselves. They don’t have to look or act like a man to earn their male colleagues’ respect. Women should feel more confident when facing challenges and don’t avoid promoting themselves and their achievements. Women can also be mentors for new-comers in the sector and not be afraid to be a pioneer.
Interview by Rachel Sorenson, a climate activist and feminist passionate about empowering women through off-grid solar projects. She holds a BA in economics and an MS in environmental science and policy.