A Commitment to Equity—in the City, the Classroom, and Even the Jungle

NRDC senior scientist Lara Ettenson is determined to bridge social, economic, and cultural divides by advancing clean energy in California.

NRDC senior scientist Lara Ettenson (front) in Nepal’s Chitwan National park with the GRID International Program in 2017

Credit: GRID Alternatives

Being raised in a middle-class family in San Francisco, Lara Ettenson has long had a keen sense of her privilege. Her parents, a social worker and a psychiatrist, cemented her values of inclusivity and recognizing everyone’s worth. Ettenson carried that self-awareness and those early lessons with her through college and two master’s programs, onto a job teaching science to elementary school students, several international volunteer experiences, and, finally, through her current position as a senior scientist with NRDC, where she focuses on reducing the environmental and economic impact of the Golden State’s energy system for every Californian.

“Growing up in a family where everyone’s work focused on improving people’s lives guided me to the work I do now,” Ettenson says. “It always made sense that you would find some way to fix what is broken in the world.”

At NRDC, where she started 11 years ago, Ettenson is a versatile team player who dedicates her time and skills to a lot of projects. Her main role is to coordinate the organization’s energy efficiency initiatives—an area that about 80 staff members work on—to “make sure we’re all rowing in the same direction.”

Many of those efforts center on ensuring that people who have been traditionally left behind have equal—if not more—access to clean energy opportunities. For a long time, she explains, the reason for focusing on energy efficiency has been energy savings—to reduce air pollution and to stop the construction of new power plants. More recently, however, with NRDC’s addition of the Energy Efficiency for All program and the adoption of new equity laws by various states (including her home state of California), advocates trying to push energy savings are also focused on the recipients of those benefits and ensuring that no community lacks the incentives, understanding, or opportunities to upgrade their homes and small businesses.

Ettenson also manages NRDC’s robust energy efficiency efforts in California, where just last week, the state’s commission overseeing the privately owned utilities approved a new set of business plans to help every customer cut even more energy waste through 2025. As part of her state-level work, Ettenson cochairs the California Energy Efficiency Coordinating Committee, which brings together 20 diverse groups—local governments, utilities, the energy efficiency industry, labor interests, and social justice organizations—to collaborate on a common goal. While advocating for energy efficiency may not be central to many of the organizations’ missions, Ettenson seeks to ensure that the communities they represent can reap its rewards—namely, lower bills and healthier homes.

Meanwhile, internally at NRDC, she is focused on promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion within the workplace, taking the lead on helping to reflect these values at the organization’s San Francisco office. For example, in 2017, Ettenson and several colleagues attended the Better Man conference, focused on engaging men as allies to create an inclusive environment that supports and brings more women and minorities into leadership roles. She continues this work with her colleagues, creating space to discuss ways NRDC can put the concept of “allyship” into practice.

But perhaps the most meaningful part of Ettenson’s work is a gig she took on last July as part of her role at NRDC. One day a week, she teaches the eco-literacy component of a nine-week construction pre-apprenticeship class at Rising Sun Energy Center. The Berkeley-based clean energy education center offers various services to the community, including job training and placement for low-income adults, nearly half of whom are reentering the workforce after having been incarcerated.

Ettenson works with people like Robin Lyons (pictured), a participant in the Green Energy Training Services Women Building the Bay.
Credit: Rising Sun

The opportunity has combined Ettenson’s longstanding passion for teaching and her commitment to helping others. “The students are just incredible,” she says. In addition to many members of her class going on to land union jobs, Ettenson highlights other, more personal ways her teaching has impacted them. For example, one woman who hadn’t previously thought twice about buying plastic water bottles ditched them altogether, while another who developed an in-class plan to promote neighborhood recycling, compost, and trash collection took her assignment home to apply it in her own community. Meanwhile, another student followed up on a lesson about home energy savings by asking Ettenson to review her utility bill; she later reported that she had set up an appointment with PG&E to discuss the upgrades available to her.

Julia Hatton, Rising Sun’s director of strategy development and policy, notes that Ettenson’s students have commented on her “snap” and enthusiasm. “It's not just anyone who can come in and effectively manage that classroom and engage the class like she does,” Hatton says. “She's incredibly smart. She's a connector. And she is a true advocate for environmental justice. We feel like we just got so lucky to have her teaching this cohort.”

Ettenson and GRID Alternatives cofounder Tim Sears on a GRID Alternatives trip to Nicaragua
Credit: Courtesy Lara Ettenson

It’s a sentiment shared by Tim Sears, cofounder of another NRDC community partner, GRID Alternatives, an Oakland-based nonprofit that helps low-income communities access affordable solar power. “She is just an amazing person and very loyal. That really comes across in every professional and personal interaction with her,” he says. GRID also trains potential employees for jobs in the solar industry and has a program that focuses on installing solar in rural communities around the globe.

On her own time, Ettenson has participated in two of GRID Alternatives’ international service-oriented trips, first to Nicaragua in 2013 then to Nepal just last year. On the most recent trip, the group installed solar panels on an observation tower in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, a refuge to the Bengal tiger and other endangered animals. As a result of that effort, the jungle’s previously off-grid tower now has a reliable energy source for power outlets, security lights, and fans, making it a tourist attraction. Likewise, the upgrades benefit the area’s residents, in part by generating local jobs geared toward maintaining the systems and also through creating a new stream of community funding—the money visitors pay to stay overnight in the tower goes to local conservation projects, habitat restoration, women’s empowerment initiatives, and training and education programs.

“Through these trips, we not only support solar installations while working with the people who benefit from them but also learn about the culture and meet locals in addition to visiting the tourist spots that tend to bring people to other countries,” Ettenson says. “It’s a beautiful mix.”

She say these experiences show how critical it is to put policies in place allowing low-income communities to benefit from the clean energy economy and the cost-saving perks that come with it.

GRID Alternatives International Program installing solar in Nicaragua
Credit: GRID Alternatives

Sheryl Carter, codirector of NRDC’s Energy program, highlights the importance of Ettenson’s ability to create diverse coalitions in achieving that goal here in the United States, too. “She consistently manages to bring together groups with very different perspectives and objectives around a common cause—some of whom weren’t even talking to one another at the start—and to broaden those perspectives,” says Carter, adding that Ettenson’s experience as a schoolteacher to young children has undoubtedly played a role in shaping her leadership and listening skills. No doubt that background, coupled with the lessons of her upbringing, has encouraged her as she strives to make California's vision of clean energy a reality for everyone.

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