Reshma Singh was recently honored by the TechWomenmentorship award from the U.S. Department of State (Source: TechWomen)
Reshma Singh is a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office.
Concurrently, at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, she is the founder of the U.S. Department of Energy’s technology-to-market IMPEL program and the new Cradle to Commerce climate-tech incubation engine.
She previously served as Program Director for the Presidential U.S-India Center for Building Energy Research and Development and the California Energy Commission's R2M2 Microgrids effort.
Reshma holds cleantech patents and brings over 10 years of experience advancing urban sustainability and cleantech innovation and working with complex international ecosystems in the United States, India, and Singapore.
Her research work lies at the intersection of design and technology of smart buildings and cities, with a focus on energy, data analytics and UX, and IoT sensors and controls. Reshma serves on the Advisory Board for the Carbon Leadership Forum, and the U.S. Department of State’s TechWomen program as a champion for women's leadership in climate tech innovation.
Egypt Today was honored to interview the inspiring woman who spoke about many important issues regarding climate action.
1-Tell us about your technology-to-market IMPEL program, the California Energy Commission's R2M2 Microgrids program, and the Presidential U.S.-India Center for Building Energy Research and Development (CBERD).
Can you believe that buildings contribute a mind-boggling 40% of energy-based emissions that are causing climate change? Buildings represent the largest economic heft, emotional weight, and environmental lift of any sector. Buildings and construction have immediate climate impacts and lasting market and societal implications.
You've encompassed three of my major programs that take a laser focus on this critical sector. We aim to decarbonize the built environment, i.e. the homes that our families live in, the buildings that we work and shop in, the schools that our children learn and play in, and our relationship with the natural environment around us.
The first program, IMPEL, incubates new climate technologies towards market adoption. The aim is to impel our society towards net zero carbon-built environments that promote equitable wellness and resilience. As you know, millions across the world don't have access to even dignified shelter, let alone clean energy, and are extremely vulnerable to increasingly frequent climate events such as flooding and wildfires. Through IMPEL we are empowering equitable entrepreneurship for early-stage buildings and climate technologies–essentially we are an incubation engine. I am passionate about how we can encourage inclusive innovation in the clean tech sector, to include marginalized and under-represented community members, when the intended beneficiaries themselves become entrepreneurs.
The second program is California Energy Commission's R2M2 which stands for resilient, replicable modular microgrids. Microgrids are an essential way to get clean energy into the hands of people. Modular microgrids make it possible to decentralize energy and take it to the furthest reaches of the planet from Egypt to Kazakhstan, from India to Indonesia. Whether you have an island country, a country with a lot of sunshine, or a country with a lot of wind, we can harness the power of our natural resources and use replicable microgrids to bring access to clean electricity and empower all toward economic prosperity.
The third program that you mentioned, the Presidential U.S.-India Center for Building Energy Research and Development (CBERD), has been a great partnership between the United States and India. Through this joint R&D project, our teams developed science and technology-based techniques, innovative building materials and digital technologies, and energy-efficient cooling equipment that would enable the decarbonization and digitalization of buildings. And I feel I am a daughter of both these countries, having spent half my life in each!
My last ten years have been at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, one of 17 U.S. Department of Energy national labs, a world-leading hub for scientific discovery and innovation. Our research and development budget is around $1 billion annually through which we conduct multiprogram research, which encompasses discovery science, clean and efficient energy, healthy earth and ecological systems, and the future of science, and is supported by 22 scientific divisions in six research areas. Berkeley Lab's mission is to make scientific discoveries that change the world through fundamental science, which is evidenced by our 16 Nobel prize laureates. With such a massive force for innovation behind it and the mission to drive global change through its work, Berkeley Lab has been instrumental in developing these programs so that we can drive climate-focused innovation.
2-You have years of experience advancing urban sustainability and cleantech innovation and working with complex international ecosystems in the United States, India, and Singapore. Can you tell us more about that and also how can we achieve the equation of achieving sustainability and fighting climate change through collaboration?
In mathematics, one plus one makes two. But in collaboration between partners, I believe that one plus one makes eleven! Global collaboration on urban sustainability can be tangible and powerful. Climate change has no boundaries, so technology and green capital should have no boundaries.
Let’s look at the building ecosystems of developed economies and emerging economies. For instance, the U.S. and Singapore are countries with large amounts of building renovations geared toward energy efficiency, electrification, and decarbonization. Renovation and retrofit (rather than rebuilding) provide a stage for the demonstration and deployment of innovative solutions in the built environment. On the other hand, the massive amount of new commercial buildings and affordable housing construction happening in emerging economies can provide leapfrog opportunities for the appropriate design and operations of buildings. These opportunities include significant energy efficiency on the demand side, particularly for the provision of cooling in our warming world, to renewables and storage on the supply side, with underlying digital solutions to monitor, control, and optimize clean energy systems.
So, the built environment is really the exciting stage of climate action–it's not just about buildings, it's where renewables like solar and wind energy can be added, where energy storage can be added, where electric vehicles can be added, and they can all be beautifully integrated around buildings.
And it is essential to develop a global partnership for knowledge sharing and innovation creation and to use the built environment as a connection point between clean energy production and utilization, circular materials and economy, humans and nature, and ultimately and climate resilience and the earth’s wellness. That is why creating a collaborative, mission-oriented trifecta of government, research, and industry is of the utmost essence to collectively drive the big, organizational, and country-level commitments, like those being made at this year’s COP27 in Egypt. The public and private sectors collectively have the potential to create change to capitalism, consumerism, and the climate crisis. Fundamental changes are critical to preserving the one planet we have. To preserve our Earth, our first stakeholder.
3-Your work lies at the intersection of design and technology of smart buildings and cities, with a focus on energy, data analytics, UX, and IoT sensors and controls. Tell our readers more about that
I believe that there are three key drivers for sustainability in the built environment: decarbonize, democratize, and digitalize.
Let's take these three drivers one by one. The first, decarbonizing towards ‘net zero’ is pursued by radically reducing embodied and operational energy. How? First, design the built environment to consume as little energy as possible in its construction and operations, and then add renewables/storage/EVs so the community produces enough clean energy to meet or exceed its needs. The second driver, democratizing, is about all of us. How do you bring resilience, biodiversity, and wellness to urban areas? It means equitable access to clean energy and technologies, by empowering human capacity, inclusive innovation, and community participation in clean energy solutions. The third driver, digitalizing towards connected transformations, i.e.connecting equipment, buildings, and energy systems with organizations’ data-driven decision-making. Some digital solutions can provide meaningful feedback for people like you and me to learn how to switch off lights, turn off taps, use renewables, and make sure we are using our resources efficiently. How can organizations take this data and make sure that their carbon emissions, regardless of scope, are radically reduced? As countries, how do we use digital sensors and technologies and advances in data analytics and artificial intelligence, for all the buildings, all the renewables, and all the energy being produced and consumed in the nation to develop data-driven nationally determined contributions and targets such as the ones being announced at COP27 this year?
Our aim is a net zero built environment that promotes equitable wellness and resilience for everybody on this planet. These three drivers of decarbonize, democratize, and digitalize enable us to achieve sustainability meaningfully. And how we build today, sustainably, can alter the course of history.
4- Since you are on the Advisory Board for the Carbon Leadership Forum, how can we eliminate embodied carbon in buildings and infrastructure?
Embodied carbon pertains to the significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions arising from the extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials. While operations account for 28%, embodied emissions from construction and materials, like steel and cement, account for 11% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.
In the Carbon Leadership Forum, we are focusing on embodied carbon, which is essential to decarbonization. First, we are trying to bring awareness that efficiency starts first with resource efficiency: consider carefully how much material you are using, where are you deriving it from, are you using recycled materials, are you transporting it from away, or is it a local, abundant, biogenic resource? We are working on providing awareness, technology, and policy guidance on embodied carbon transparency and codes. We are developing software tools to understand, again, as part of the digitalization paradigm, how you measure and monitor embodied carbon from the point of extraction to its use, and to disposal and how you make sure that this data is available to decision-makers so they can make the right policies. So, in a nutshell, the Carbon Leadership Forum is collecting the relevant data, developing the right digital technologies, and trying to embolden decision-makers to make the right decisions around embodied carbon. Common embodied carbon language can be converted into gains, health, and wealth, which can lead to better business and a better environment.
5-You have previously founded GreenExcel, an education startup, and IMPEL, a climate tech incubator, both entrepreneurial ventures. Could you tell us more about the roles they play as effective tools in fighting climate change?
Green Excel was my first entrepreneurial baby in 2009! I realized that to have more people be aware of climate action, you have to start at the very basic level of education, which becomes even more powerful if you put the information into the hands of the right people. Information becomes knowledge and knowledge becomes power. Green Excel was an online edu-tech platform where people learned how to design and build greener and smarter buildings with a goal of a triple net zero paradigm: zero energy, zero water, and zero waste. It focused on helping public and private sector organizations to excel in green policy, green technologies, and green investments.
And excelling in a green lifestyle is something that is very doable even at a personal level. Each of us can take that pledge today to become climate warriors. We can employ circularity to get to zero energy, zero water, and zero waste. So how do you use zero energy? It's by first embracing energy efficiency through smart passive and active design in buildings, followed by using renewable energy with electric vehicles. How do you use zero water? It's by recycling water, capturing rainwater, and making sure that the gray water coming out from your kitchens is recycled and put back into irrigation for your gardens. Zero waste is all about recycling and upcycling. So yes, I think each one of us can take a climate pledge and make sure that we can take aspects of Green Excel and excel in making our own lives, our own communities, organization, and our own nations green.
From that journey has come another more recent venture, IMPEL. IMPEL is the first U.S. Department of Energy program focused on incubating building and climate technologies. We help entrepreneurs from small businesses, academia, and science translate the premise and promise of their technology into the language of business, boosting their chances of bringing it to market. These individuals–or as we call them, IMPEL Innovators–have a passion for the building lifecycle (design, construction, operations, and circular technologies) and for energy technologies that integrate with buildings (onsite renewables or grid integration incorporating electrification, energy storage, and electric vehicle charging). The buildings sector has been notoriously challenging for bringing tech to market, where many new projects or businesses fall victim to the notorious ‘valleys of death’. IMPEL tries to knock down these barriers. In its three years, IMPEL has successfully incubated 150 early-stage startup teams who have conducted over 60 pilots, generated hundreds of green jobs, and raised over $45 million in funding to commercialize their early-stage climate technologies. But what we are most proud of is that IMPEL embraces equitable entrepreneurship –overhalf of our IMEL Innovators are women and people of color!
6-You played a big role in empowering women entrepreneurs. Could you tell us more about that by giving examples of the most prominent Egyptian entrepreneurs that you have empowered?
If I had to think about it, my work has developed along three vectors: building and climate technology, international development, and women’s empowerment. And at the intersection of these three vectors is my involvement over the past decade with the international TechWomen program of the U.S. Department of State. TechWomen empowers, connects, and supports the next generation of women leaders in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) from Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East by providing them the access and opportunity needed to advance their careers, pursue their dreams, and inspire women and girls in their communities by exposing them to female role model mentors.
Apart from being on the TechWomen Alumni Council for three years, I have had the privilege to mentor over 18 emerging leaders from 12 countries. Some Of them have stood for national election in their country on a platform of clean energy, others have developed STEM mentoring programs for school children back in their country. My mentees have included three emerging leaders from Egypt. I am proud of my mentees Inass Aboukhodier who is working in renewable energy, Mariam Elnahrawi who is working on geosciences and energy, and Hamis Elgabry of Mozare3 who was recently helped by our IMPEL entrepreneurship program and won the first prize in the growth-stage startup category at the Africa-wide the PitchAgriHack competition!
These TechWomen represent the start of a renaissance for Egypt’s and infact, global climate action.