Teaching Young Women To Become Energy Diplomats and Innovators

Posted by Faith Corneille
August 10, 2016
Participants build an electrical circuit based on a button battery during the recent WiSci camp in Peru, which focused on building skills in science, technology, engineering, arts and design, and mathematics (STEAM) fields.

When I was invited to talk with 100 high-school aged girls from Chile, Peru, Mexico, and the United States about energy at the WiSci (Women in Science) STEAM camp in Peru, I knew this was something I wanted to do. Having worked on Western Hemisphere energy issues at State for over ten years, and currently serving in Costa Rica as the Energy Resources’ Bureau regional advisor, I was very honored. Then the hard part started –- make global energy policy issues relevant, fun, and understandable for 100 teenaged girls -- in Spanish. 

I wanted to focus on the Western Hemisphere as a region not only because it is familiar to the girls, but also because this region, relative to others, has high renewable energy use and rates of electricity access, electrical interconnectivity and trade, fascinating geopolitics of energy, and many clean energy partnerships. Drawing from my experiences with Model United Nations (UN) and energy negotiations in the region, I drafted a “mashup” clean energy policy simulation loosely based off of the UN General Assembly and the Organization of American States’ General Assembly (OASGA). I knew these girls had a strong grasp of science and math -- having been selected from over 700 applicants -- but I wasn’t sure how they would embrace the concept of energy diplomacy. 

Before the simulation began, Caroline D’Angelo and Helaina Matza, colleagues from State’s Greening Council, and I decided to start with the basics. We did an “Electricity 101” session on renewable and fossil energy technologies, energy poverty, and discussed how energy-related emissions contribute to climate change. Thanks to a State Department Smart Metering Program, the girls built a circuit based on a button battery, measured power consumption, and received kits to build a solar-powered flashlight. Understanding the basics of how electricity is generated, distributed, measured, and traded across borders proved to be important background before the "Model Energy UN." 

WiSci Camp participants in Peru engage in energy diplomacy “and strategize technical and financial assistance to encourage ambitious clean energy targets” as part of their simulation. [State Department Photo] 

Then, it was time for the simulation and energy diplomacy! I asked the girls to negotiate two targets and approve a resolution committing each OAS member state to “achieve 50 percent of electricity from renewable energy and 100 percent access to electricity for its population” by 2030. The girls were divided into two simultaneous simulation groups, each comprised of seven teams representing the energy ministers of Chile, Mexico, Peru, Nicaragua, and the United States; the OAS Secretary General; and representatives of UN agencies involved in energy as well as the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Everyone was given the same background policy information, a guide to key energy concepts, and a simulation scenario. To help give them a better sense of tensions present in real-life negotiations, each team received a role-specific policy position, information about the country’s electricity matrix and access rates, energy relationships with neighbors, cross-border energy infrastructure, and pictures of the actual energy ministers and OAS Secretary General (who all happen to be men). The UN agencies and IRENA teams were authorized to offer a fixed amount of financial support to leverage commitments, but they could offer more technical assistance if governments agreed to more ambitious targets, such as universal electricity access by 2025. 

I could never have imagined just how quickly the simulation came to life, with excitement filling the room almost immediately.  Although some girls were initially reluctant to represent a country other than their own, after a little encouragement, they embraced their assigned roles. Before long, the large cafeteria transformed into a New York trading floor with girls running around and negotiating, persuading peers, asking excellent questions, and pleading for more time. Both simulations yielded consensus -- with a few changes. Our “Peruvian energy minister” addressed the General Assembly, saying she could not accept the 100 percent access goal because not all indigenous communities want electricity, a real-world perspective the girls had added themselves. A team representing Nicaragua, which in “real life” increased its access rates from 50 percent in 2007 to over 80 percent in 2015, committed to achieving 100 percent access by 2030, but only if the UN and IRENA would help finance projects in Nicaragua. A motion to modify the resolution to “100 percent access for those communities who want modern energy services” was accepted. 

The second simulation achieved consensus but ended differently: Mexico’s delegation joined the United States in proposing that the renewable target be changed to “clean energy,” to account for nuclear energy, enabling consensus on the 50 percent goal. The girls’ policy recommendations were keenly insightful; North American leaders had actually committed to this language weeks prior to the WiSci camp. Joint infrastructure projects were announced as well, which enable countries to trade energy. The “Chilean and Peruvian energy ministers” agreed to build their first electrical interconnection, the only way Chile could reach a 50 percent renewable energy target given its reliance on natural gas, inability to permit more hydropower projects, or consider nuclear energy given its seismic vulnerability to earthquakes. 

Girls on “Team Chile” negotiate energy policy as part of a Model UN-like simulation within the WiSci camp in Peru. WiSci is part of the Let Girls Learn initiative, launched by the White House to open the doors of education for girls around the world. [State Department Photo]

The camp is designed to expose the girls to a range of careers in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) fields, while the simulation exposed them to another very important option that could use more women with science and technical backgrounds: public service and diplomacy. After the simulation, one girl said she often felt frustrated by her government, but the simulation was “eye-opening” because while she knew making deals was not easy, she didn't appreciate how hard it really was. 

It was amazing to witness these young women take on leadership roles and convey an understanding of the political, financial, energy, environmental, and climate considerations governments must take into account. Not only did they grasp complex, and often technical, concepts, they understood how difficult it can be to balance national interests with regional and global cooperation. And they walked away with a greater understanding of and appreciation for the role of diplomacy to foster shared solutions to shared challenges. We are excited to see how these young women will contribute to our clean energy future and, I am humbled to have planted a seed that inspired them to consider the infinite possibilities. 

About the Author: Faith Corneille serves as Senior Regional Energy Advisor in the State Department's Bureau of Energy Resources (ENR) and is currently based at the Embassy San José, Costa Rica. 

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