Interview with Isabelle Christensen, Doosan GridTech Solar and Storage Subject Matter Expert
Astroscientist, economist, electrical engineer, renewable energy veteran, NASA Ambassador & social entrepreneur are just a few ways to describe Isabelle Christensen, BSEE, PHD of Doosan GridTech. I spoke w/Isabelle about Doosan GridTech’s distributed energy resources aggregation software platform & work across the globe, how her interest in STEM work developed, as well as how she came to found Rocket Science for Girls, Professional Women in Solar & a now thriving women-focused solar energy microfinance startup in Africa.
Catherine: I’m Catherine McLean, founder and CEO of Dillon green. And today I have with me, Isabelle Christensen, Doctor Isabelle Christensen I should say. She’s the head of strategic sourcing and business development for Doosan GridTech. Welcome.
Isabelle: Thank you, Catherine. I’m excited to be on your show today.
Catherine: It’s great to have somebody from Seattle. I think you’re our first person from Seattle. So that’s exciting. Tell us a little bit about you. I mean, I’ve heard you’re a private pilot, you’re an Astro scientist. You’re a social entrepreneur, a women’s advocate. Tell us everything.
Isabelle: Great. Excellent. Well, my academic background is actually in Astro science and economics. When I was young, my grandfather was an amateur astronomer. So since young, he took me on to field trips to look at the sky. So I’ve always wanted to do something with the stars and the sky. That’s why I went to university to study extra science. But when I was growing up in Tanzania, I had a teacher who is a single mom in Tanzania with three kids. She was a consummate entrepreneur, so to speak and he taught me a lot about businesses. So that got me interested in economics, which is why I did a double major in both science and business when I was in university.
Catherine: Wow. That’s great. So you answered my question about, I guess I was going to ask you about, were you interested in STEM topics from a young age? So I guess you work because of your grandfather, do you think that, I mean, it must be important then to have role models, like you were saying to get you interested in STEM. It must’ve been such a big part of how you got to where you are today.
Isabelle: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s especially important if you have a family member or someone close to you who will nurture the interest at a young age and at the same time, I think the age locators in my life also played a very big role. For instance, my teacher who introduced me to businesses, she was such a great, strong role model being a woman at that time, a single mom and having her own business and teaching. So I think that’s very important.
Catherine: Well, I’m a big fan of single moms. You only have one, but it’s a lot of work.
Isabelle: It takes a village!
Catherine: Yeah, that is like the truest statement. So let’s talk a little bit about energy storage, such a hot topic at the moment and Doosan GridTech. So there you’ve done projects all over the world. I’m curious to know the difference between like a California- Texas project versus an Australia- Korea project.
Isabelle: Sure. So, Doosan GridTech is a fully owned subsidiary of Doosan Group. And Doosan Heavy Industry is a Fortune 500 company with businesses in conventional energy, as well as renewable energy, like wind, water desalination, fuel cell and energy storage. So when, when we first started 10 years ago, our clients were mostly utility companies. They were very progressive. So most of the projects that we did in the early days of energy storage were fairly small. I would say about 10 megawatt hour. At that time it was considered a large project and it was mostly to test out, uh, energy shifting frequency regulation, as well as lots shifting as we progressed further, we noticed that the IPP started entering into the market. And especially in California, we’re starting to see more and more innovative business models where IPP are actually participating or figuring out a way to participate in the wholesale market without actually securing fixed PPA. But just because the economics is so good that they are looking at coming up with new business models to participate in those markets. In Texas, we are seeing more and more standalone energy storage projects in California, where we see more solar plus storage and that’s becoming quite exciting. We have a large project that is being constructed right now. I don’t think it’s public yet. So therefore I can’t mention the name, but it’s in a core territory. And in California, we have done a joint program with mini energy or decoupled solar in the Mojave Desert to look at how the various sophisticated control systems can help maximize the revenue that is coming from energy storage, class storage, plus solar, sorry. And in Korea, unfortunately starting this year, the incentive for stationary storage is no longer available, but in the past it’s mostly for energy shifting. So we’ve done a lot of projects together with solar and storage in Korea. And right now in Korea, most of the incentives are for EBV, not for stationary storage, interesting in Australia, the market. It’s rather interesting because compared to the United States there are a lot more players and a lot more lenders in the U S therefore you are starting to see more and more EPC taking up the role of system integrator or OEMs taking up the role of system integrator. But in Australia, in order to get funding from lenders, the projects are mostly constructed by food turnkey, EPC players, uh, such as Tucson. In Australia in order to get funding. So that’s what we’re seeing. And we also see a lot more frequency regulation use cases in Australia as well for, for our projects in Australia. And one of our, one of the largest projects in Australia with Vena Energy, the one, the one project is being constructed by our team in Queensland right now as well.
Catherine: You must’ve been traveling a lot before Covid.
Isabelle: So before Covid yes. But since Covid, the company has a very stringent safety standard. You only travel when it’s absolutely necessary. So I haven’t traveled at all since Covid yeah.
Catherine: And doing everything remote with all these different places, must be very challenging.
Isabelle: It can be.
Catherine: You never get to sleep!
Isabelle: Yes, That is true.
Catherine: I want to talk about this women focused social entrepreneurship that you’re involved in. I believe it’s three different organizations, Women in Solar, Rocket Science for Girls, which I love the name of that, and Green Ocean Ventures. Tell me a bit more about these organizations.
Isabelle: I will start historically. So, the first venture that I started was Green Ocean Venture. It actually started when I was in university doing my master thesis. So my thesis was how to help female entrepreneurs in this DRC Congo to start their own solar home charging business in order to gain financial independence. And I had a very good professor at that time, once the thesis was completed, he connected me to some high net worth individuals and friends who wanted to donate money to charity, but wanted to have a lot more impact than just writing a check. So, this individual funded the first “fund”. And we started, we meaning me and a few of my classmates, we started this fund and we continued to provide micro loans to female entrepreneur entrepreneurs in DRC. And after I graduated, I sort of got less and less involved because the fund has gotten a lot of traction. And by now we have four full-time employees and it’s been run by local female entrepreneurs. Everything is run locally. So I’m really proud of that social enterprise. And the second group professional Women in Solar is actually a funny story because I’ve always wanted to be a female scientist with NASA. And that’s how I got my fellowship to come to the United States. I was doing my post-doc research. I went to Solar Power International in 2006 and long story short, I drank the Kool-Aid and decided I wanted to save the planet instead of exploring other planets. And at that time at the conference, they were about literally less than 10 women on the show floor. So it started as a grassroots group to get women who are involved in the solar industry together and support each other, and subsequently, uh, started organizing an annual event with SEPA during SPI and it’s grown by itself. And now there a lot of professional women are in solar groups, different groups, some trade groups. So it has been dissolved since 2016. And I’m very happy to see that there’s a lot of women professionals in the solar industry now, there still needs more but compared to 2006…
Catherine: … I think we made some progress! I’m trying! Tell me about the Green Ocean Ventures.
Isabelle: That was the first one, the micro loans for,
Catherine: Oh, that was the one for Congo.
Isabelle: Yes. The Rocket Science for Girls happened recently, after being in the solar industry for about 10 years, I started missing astronomy and planetary science. So I started volunteering at a Shabbat Observatory. I used to live in the Bay area, as a volunteer astronomer, and started volunteering for NASA, as “solar ambassador” to do outreach for their education events, to schools and kids. And when I was in Kenya for one of the nonprofit projects with engineers without borders, I noticed a lot of the girls in a village where we were installing ground water wells, they were not even aware of the possibility that you can have an option to be something more than just a teacher, a nurse, or at best, you might learn to code computer programs. And, I really wanted to give them the idea that there are a lot more and why not dream big dreams for the stars. So I started collecting donations to buy telescopes for them so that they can start getting interested in astronomy and maybe perhaps someday be interested in going to Mars or the moon.
Catherine: Amazing. That’s amazing. Tell me what made you call Democratic Republic of Congo one Green Ocean when it was solar?
Isabelle: Well, it, it was a very funny story. We were trying to come up with names of a bunch of students. And at first we were trying to come up with something with solar, but everything was taken.
Catherine: That’s what threw me!
Isabelle: And then, we read a business book called Blue Ocean Strategy, where you’re supposed to find a new business idea. And we will say there might be copyright issues if we call it Blue Ocean. So why don’t we just change it to Green Ocean? Because there is a large Lake in DRC, Congo, Lake Kivu and in the summertime the water in the Lake is green. So it’s just quite Green Ocean Venture. And it kind of stuck, well, long story short. It’s sort of, because we couldn’t get anything with solar, we came up with the best alternative.
Catherine: I like it. I like it. Well, thank you so much for your time and just thank you so much for all the amazing work that you’re doing all over the world for our industry and women and girls, and just awesome.
Isabelle: Well, thank you for all the work that you’re doing as well. Getting more into the industry. Women leaders, right. That’s what, that’s what we’re trying to do now.