Challenging women's invisibility in the energy sector

Jelena Ponocko is bringing fair and equitable access to energy while working towards net zero.

Electricity – most of us in the developed world have access to it at the flip of a switch or push of a button, and most of us take it for granted that we have a secure and steady supply of power. Again, most of us wouldn’t draw a connection between access to electricity with women’s empowerment. But energy poverty is an issue that impacts significantly on women around the world.

“My research empowers both women and men, and I believe that is a great example of gender equity.”

Jelena Ponocko is a Lecturer in Distance Learning in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and she works to make power grids more efficient. “My research in the field of Demand Side Management (DSM) is looking into how we can empower electricity consumers by enabling them to actively support a more flexible, economic and sustainable operation of the power network.”

Managing the load

DSM is a new area of study within electrical engineering that looks at how energy is used by consumers and how the load on the grid can be better balanced between peak and off-peak times. DSM has multiple benefits for both energy companies and consumers including keeping the aging infrastructure running without the need for extra capacity and reducing the cost of electricity for the consumer.

With reduced electricity costs comes fairer access to power: “however small we think we are as the users of the power grid, if we act together, we can make a difference, and that is one of the highlights of my research. My research empowers both women and men, and I believe that is a great example of gender equity,” says Ponocko.

Energy poverty is most pronounced for women who fall into lower socioeconomic groups, especially in the North of England, and for those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic group backgrounds. High levels of caring responsibilities, part-time employment and being a single parent also contribute to women’s ability to be energy secure. This in turn limits women’s choice in energy sources and implementing new infrastructure to support more sustainable energy consumption.

By employing DSM at a local, national, and international level Jelena says: “Locally, electricity consumers can use DSM to make savings and contribute to lower carbon emissions in their neighbourhood. At a national level, our power network can be operated more efficiently with the DSM applied to residential areas, factories, shopping malls and so on. Finally, at an international level, countries can help each other by sharing their own DSM capabilities to support more sustainable network operation.”

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Like most of us, Jelena has been working from home during the pandemic, but this hasn’t stopped her from being a powerhouse for women in the energy sector.

“I promote female power engineers and support early or mid-career engineers on their way to becoming leaders.”

Increasing representation in the energy sector

Closer to home, Jelena is also working to make the energy industry a fairer place for women: “I am the IEEE Power and Energy Society (PES) Women in Power (WIP) Representative for UK and Ireland. Together with the WIP Committee, I promote female power engineers in academia and industry and support early or mid-career engineers who seek guidance and advice on their way to becoming leaders themselves. WIP in the UK and Ireland is organising workshops, webinars and similar events, with the support of local volunteers (both male and female), to facilitate knowledge exchange, networking, and collaboration within and between academia and industry.”

As a lecturer at the University, she is also aware of her responsibility to her students: “I believe that being professional and kind in what you do, whether it is an academic role or any other, is the best example you can give to others. The University is there primarily for the young people, and as members of staff, we have to be constantly aware of the responsibility we carry as role models to those who will be making this world better in the future.”

With women like Jelena working in the power industry, forging a path for others to follow and helping to make energy supply fairer, everyone can benefit from the new technology and management techniques to lead a sustainable, both economically and environmentally, life.

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