Inclusivity and Innovation in Energy
Spotlight on Maria Kottari (European Commission’s Joint Research Centre)
Maria, why the energy sector? Can you tell us more about your journey into the field? What drives you in your career
The decision to work in the energy field is one of the wisest choices I have ever made. The cross-cutting nature of the field enabled me to acquire a variety of knowledge across different sectors and to thoroughly understand some of the key historical and political developments of human society, as well as the EU integration process and progress.
During my Master studies in Bordeaux, I was inspired by an Environmental Law Philosophy class I followed. From there on, energy became the key denominator in my political studies, both in a regional and international context.
The choice at the time was not straightforward, because Energy as a field of international studies and political science was a new undiscovered area, mostly associated with engineering and other related geosciences. I remember that in the early years of my PhD, the panels associated with energy politics in the academic conferences were a kind of undervalued rarity, usually squeezed in between sessions related to regional geopolitics and global security studies. Energy Politics though, gained its momentum due to unfortunate incidents like the Russian-Ukraine gas disputes or the Fukushima nuclear accident and became an integral part of academic research in the entire spectrum across International and European studies, political economy and development studies.
This is what still drives me in my career: the dynamic and perpetually changing nature of the energy field. It is an ever-expanding field of new knowledge, which despite its daunting complexity, offers the excitement of the undiscovered, of innovative thinking, of the consolidation of knowledge across seemingly unrelated studies, binding together to fulfil a common vision. I finished my PhD research while the concept of energy security was being redefined, in order to include notions such as environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation. I feel extremely lucky that I began my professional career amidst the clean energy transition, which gives a new momentum for energy to be at the heart of global policy debates. I admittedly live and act in interesting (energy) times, and although the Chinese sage meant it as a curse, for me, it has been quite a blessing.
What are your main responsibilities at the Joint Research Centre (JRC)?
I joined the JRC in October 2016, as part of the Knowledge for Energy Union Unit and the Research, Innovation and Competitiveness team. More precisely, I am providing support in science, research and communication for the successful implementation of the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET Plan), established in 2007. SET Plan supports the coordination of national and European research and innovation efforts by promoting cooperation among EU countries, industries and research institutions. It supports the acceleration of impactful low-carbon energy technologies (in terms of technological improvement and cost reduction) that will contribute to the transformation of the EU’s energy system. It is the key enabler of the Energy Union’s research and innovation strategy and being involved at the operational and administrative level of the activity’s coordination allows me to thoroughly understand the challenges associated with the deployment of low-carbon technologies and the successful delivery of affordable and sustainable clean energy to all European citizens. Communication and dissemination of information related to the SET Plan process and progress are among my main responsibilities, a task quite demanding albeit positively challenging.
You are also actively volunteering with several organisations in the Netherlands and Greece, mostly related to women’s’ empowerment. What are the most important takeaways — or lessons learnt from these experiences?
The first thing that comes to mind is analysing things and acting from a human-centred approach. Frankly, I have found my passion in volunteering for youth policies, women empowerment and gender equality. Volunteering is extrinsically rewarding, as it complements my academic skills and gives me a wider spectrum of understanding complex societal and political issues along with the feeling of serving society and making a positive difference to the lives of others.
I am one of the proud founders of the Greek NGO Youthnet Hellas that gained the European Citizen’s Prize from the European Parliament and a UNESCO label in 2013 and was nominated NGO of the Year in 2015 from the European Civic Forum.
In the field on women empowerment, I am engaged in the activities of ActionAid in the Netherlands, I am a mentor for the Greek NGO Women on Top and I am also supporting CHAYN, an award-winning project helping women experiencing abuse through open and free multi-lingual resources on online safety, mental well-being, law and finance.
I consider both youth issues and gender equality extremely relevant to the challenges ahead in energy transition, climate change and the various transformations of the global economy, such as decentralisation and digitalisation.
I have developed a keen interest in women’s leadership in the European and global policy and economic arena, triggered by my studies in International Relations and my engagement in the energy field while I was in academia and currently as a professional at the JRC.
JRC, the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, employs junior and senior women scientists and has various internal networks encouraging gender equality in science, women leadership and talent management.
Digging into the nitty-gritty issues associated with women’s undermined role and insufficient participation in many professional fields, I was able to leave behind many prejudices and to understand the complexity of the causes. One thing I can say which I am pretty sure of: Women are missing neither the qualities needed nor the vision. They are missing the opportunities to scale up their potential.
From your perspective, what are the key issues and challenges that must be addressed promptly to ensure a just energy transition, in Europe and worldwide?
If I were to summarise my answer in one keyword, that would be inclusiveness. The ongoing energy transition and climate change mitigation is not affecting only the energy sector stricto sensu — in the meaning of energy production and consumption- but it is challenging the whole spectrum of economic and social life from the food and water ecosystems to the labour market and the need of a new agenda of skills and new jobs, especially in the highly digital-intensive sectors.
In my view, in order to foster an effective and just energy transition we need to ensure a fair distribution of the associated costs and benefits through enhanced international cooperation and through boosting a system-wide innovation platform in energy and climate sectors.
Last but not least…what advice would you give other women working — or entering — the energy field?
What I would like to say first, is that energy needs more women on board. Let’s face it, in today’s world women need to try harder in every area. Do not underestimate a woman’s perspective. Women have the energy, the knowledge and the empathy that the energy field needs in its fight against climate change, in order to ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for the present and future generations. Inclusiveness is the future, in everything, so ‘’get on board and be part of it’’.
I have mentioned in my previous answer that a prerequisite for an effective and just energy transition is innovation, and in that aspect, women’s engagement has a predominant role to play. Innovation comes from teamwork, from the play of ideas, from forgetting prejudices and standardised knowledge and taking a walk on the margins of what is known, of defying your comfort zone, identifying trends and of always keeping an open mind. Greater equality, diversity and openness breed innovation and create a positive environment for disruptive ideas and services to grow.