Stephanie Bostwick, Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, Training the Next Generation of Clean Energy Experts

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the U.S. Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

An aerospace engineer and educator by trade, Stephanie Bostwick has spent her career building connections between clean energy, the communities that need it, and the future clean energy experts of the world. Now at the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, she supports Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) as they develop the future workforce and  build out clean energy projects.

Teaching Clean Energy

After years of working in the aerospace industry, Stephanie switched over to teaching – first at Lake Washington Institute of Technology and later at Northwest Indian College. At these community colleges, Stephanie helped build engineering curricula that focused explicitly on clean energy – introducing solar and other technologies to “try and get students moving in a direction that would support the future that this country is moving in.” “Now that we’re focused on [clean energy], we’re trying to train people and encourage them to go down that path so they could do something that supports their communities.”

The transition made sense for other reasons too. Stephanie is a member of Blackfeet Nation and continues to work with Tribal communities like the Lummi Nation. She saw communities around her moving towards clean energy. Her students were more interested in jobs where they would not only make a good living, but make a difference in their communities as well. At the time, the Lummi Nation was exploring solar energy projects and looking to build up a solar workforce. Having educational resources that aligned with these needs helped prepare students for a changing world. 

The National Renewable Energy Lab and DOE 

As Stephanie grew these programs as a faculty member, she also participated in several fellowships that strengthened her subject matter expertise in clean energy: solar power systems, microgrids, and more. These opportunities gave her the tools and knowledge to champion clean energy at her institutions and in her community. “It’s been exciting to learn a whole new field and be able to explain it to folks at a level that helps them engage with it as well.”

One of these fellowships, the Visiting Faculty Program, brought her to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where after the fellowship she stayed permanently to support Tribes with technical assistance on clean energy projects.

Now on detail to the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, she supports TCUs. “My role involves doing outreach to all the TCUs, letting them know that we have funding, and then figuring out what technical assistance they might need and connecting them with our engineers.” In addition, she provides support with curriculum development for clean energy programs, as well as for energy resilient infrastructure on physical campuses. 

The Tribal communities she works with face many barriers to a renewable energy transition. “One of the larger issues is transmission and distribution lines that aren’t suitable for adding a significant amount of renewable energy to. [Tribes] need transmission infrastructure – we need to back up and figure out this issue.” There’s also some hesitation about clean energy solutions that might not work in more rural areas with extreme weather – heavy snowpack in the winter, and very hot summers. There are concerns about how useful electric vehicles could be in areas where the closest hospital is hours away, for example. 

But despite these concerns, Stephanie says, there’s a lot of interest in and enthusiasm for renewable energy solutions. That’s part of why she loves her job: “The awesome thing is that folks are really interested in a conversion to clean energy and what they can do to support the Tribe. It’s really fun to go out there and see that people want to move in that direction.” 

One of the most rewarding parts of her role so far has been to see progress on her old projects. When she was a faculty member at Northwest Indian College, the Lummi Nation was focused on conducting solar microgrid feasibility studies and starting to look for people to fill out a local solar workforce. In her current role, she has been able to support the Lummi Nation and the TCUs she works with in applying for and receiving funding for building out those microgrids. In just a few years, what seemed like an uphill battle is already underway to becoming a reality. 

“While it’s felt slow, it’s only been a few years and it’s been really exciting to watch how we have been able to incorporate the training and make these big things happen that seemed so distant back when we received our first grant.”

Stephanie wants to look beyond supporting Tribes on specific projects and funding opportunities and help them build capacity long-term. Her office is currently working on initiatives to do just that – in order to hand the reins of energy planning and development over to the communities themselves. “The goal is to make sure that Tribes have that internal knowledge so that in the future, they’re able to do all that on their own and not have to rely on others. Sovereignty implies that, but there are still complications. It’s exciting to move in that direction.”

Ultimately, the goal for many Tribal communities is to be able to generate their own power and distribute it to other communities – to sell the energy they generate. There are still hurdles, but Stephanie’s office helps supply Tribes with tools to get there. 

One of the special things about her position is that she’s able to work and live in the communities she serves – the remote flexibilities of DOE offer more than just personal benefits. “For me, staying in the community that I’m in and integrated into and being able to continue to do my work at the college is really important to me.”

In addition to her role at DOE, Stephanie supports students in more personal ways as well – taking Zoom calls with mentees to offer advice on aerospace careers or just help with their calculus homework. The ability to merge personal and professional pursuits in support of the clean energy transition is gratifying, even if there is still so much more to do.

“It’s exciting to have the resources and knowledge and be able to share that with the TCUs and hopefully get them on the cutting edge. It’s still an uphill battle, but it’s a very worthy battle.”