Dr. Hannah Schlaerth, Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, Clearing the Air with the Clean Energy Corps

02.27.24 | 5 min read | Text by Zoë Brouns

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the 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.

Dr. Hannah Schlaerth’s passion for applied research on climate change was sparked in university, and after completing a PhD in environmental engineering, she joined the DOE’s Clean Energy Corps. Now Dr. Schlaerth, as a lifecycle emissions analyst for the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, helps assess the air quality impacts of new clean energy technologies – directly forwarding the mission of industrial decarbonization across the country. 

Intro to Environmental Science

Dr. Schalerth’s climate journey started during her undergraduate studies. As a geology major, a research project on how climate change has impacted water quality in the U.S. Virgin Islands sparked her interest in environmental science. “Because of climate change, the water quality has really deteriorated, and it’s affected coral health down there. And I just fell in love with environmental research.” 

During her PhD at the University of Southern California, Dr. Schlaerth was awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to conduct research on urban air pollution and climate change. Her work sought to understand the intersection between aerosol concentration and urban heat islands, and how the two can impact one another. As part of another project, Dr. Schlaerth looked at urban greening and how some mitigation measures aimed at decarbonizing can have an unexpected secondary effect: an increase in organic emissions.

“Even as we’re decarbonizing and reducing some of these other precursors to ozone, we can still see some increased ozone from urban greening.” 

These projects have significant policy implications, and Dr. Schlaerth was committed to research that makes a difference. Some of her research was used by the California Air Resources Board to help inform future emissions regulations.

Her interest in air quality and applied research grew – and her graduate work opened more doors. 

Making Waves in the Clean Energy Corps

When the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August 2022, Dr. Schlaerth was “really excited.” After seeing Secretary Granholm speak about the Clean Energy Corps at the American Geophysical Union, it inspired her to apply to the Department of Energy. She joined the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations – a new office with a huge need for smart and skilled people. 

Dr. Schlaerth’s current role is analyzing lifecycle emissions – verifying that the reported emissions from new technologies that the DOE is potentially funding are accurate in practice. This work is vital to the long-term decarbonization strategies of the agency and the government – if new funded technologies don’t deliver on the emissions reductions they promise, that’s money ineffectively spent by DOE and in turn the taxpayers. Making the right decision about which ones to fund is good stewardship and smart science. 

Part of what she loves about her work is being able to see the impact she’s making – especially as someone who pursued research with real-world impacts. “When you’re in academia, you kind of get this message that the only way you can make any kind of change is by doing more research. Since I’ve started this job, I feel like I’m making more of an impact than my research did – and more directly. It has been awesome.”

For Dr. Schlaerth, the work is close to home as well. Ohio’s industrial history means that despite the lack of more visible climate threats like natural disasters or extreme heat, air quality in Ohioan cities is a serious issue. “So many of these decarbonization technologies are going to have air quality benefits in communities exactly like the one I live in. [This work] is on the precipice of some really awesome benefits.” Seeing your work at a federal level have national and local impacts at the same time is rare – but one of the benefits of working at DOE at this point in time. 

Now, because of the remote flexibility that DOE offers, Dr. Schlaerth has been able to relocate back to her home state. She finds there’s an increased interest in clean energy and decarbonization in her community now. When people ask about her job, they’re excited about the possibilities: 

“Coming back, I’ve noticed that even in the past five years people are a lot more invested in their local energy issues as well as these big bills. My Uber drivers are so interested in energy infrastructure and the grants they can get for electric vehicles.” 

But there is also hesitation. “I live in an industrial area – we still have some steel manufacturing near my apartment. There’s a misunderstanding about clean energy jobs and the huge economic impact some of these projects are going to have in regions like this.” Allowing federal employees to live where they work can not only help retain staff long-term, but can foster stronger connections and trust between the government, its initiatives, and the communities it serves. 

Despite the uphill battle the country is facing, Dr. Schlaerth feels optimistic about the future possibilities of industrial decarbonization – and especially being able to electrify some of the facilities she grew up alongside. “Electrification is a double-edged sword – it has to come from somewhere. But in the areas I’ve lived, you have huge community and indoor air quality benefits that I think are definitely worth any potential electricity tradeoff.”

Being a part of federal projects like those at OCED has given Dr. Schlaerth a more national perspective on clean energy development. “It’s really seeming like deployment is nationwide. It’s exciting to see that some communities, especially the more rural ones I grew up around, will experience the benefits of it – either through clean energy jobs or better air quality.”

On an individual level in her everyday life, and on a national scale through her work with OCED, Dr. Schlaerth will continue to make a difference in cleaning the air and decarbonizing the country.