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Karla Ricalde: Sparking Conversations, (Em)powered Communities


Energy underpins most aspects of our everyday lives (I would say all, but I am cautious with absolutes). That is what makes it the perfect excuse to get on to other topics. Energy is often seen as neutral – it gets generated, delivered and used – but the reality is that the energy sector is full of inequalities, particularly when it comes to gender.

Having worked in energy for the past seven years or so, I have seen these inequalities manifest in many ways. I have experienced first hand the prejudices that come with being read as a young woman in a male-dominated field; from people assuming I am at the table just to take notes; getting invited last minute to events to break the ‘manel’ (an all male panel); to getting ‘mansplained’ about my own research topics or basic aspects of the technologies I was already working with.

This is a systemic issue. Across the energy chain we see significant gender inequalities: ranging from unjust distributions of benefits and losses; to poor levels of gender diversity within research and industry; to a lack of decision-making power at policy and household level. This is why a key element of my work is trying to build more inclusive energy projects that help change this narrative.

One project I’ve been involved with recently is Capabilities-led Energy Poverty Alleviation Via Innovative Community Solutions (CaPAS). A mouthful, and a bi-national collaboration between the UK and Mexico, which I co-designed alongside two brilliant women, Harriet Thomson and Karla Cedano. From the start, we knew we wanted to provide sustainable energy solutions. But more importantly, we wanted to do so in a transformative manner to have a positive effect in the reduction of gender inequalities.


CaPAS is not only a nice little acronym, but also means layers in Spanish, to reflect the layered and complex nature of the role of energy in our daily lives, the lived experience of energy poverty, and the distribution of the benefits and burdens behind energy choices. By working collaboratively with families from rural towns and villages in Mexico, we wanted to generate a profound understanding of the diversity in use and meaning assigned to energy, without the usual western assumptions. Ultimately, we wanted to enable families to find the right technologies for them to fairly and sustainably address energy shortfallings in their home.

After a year of meetings where senior men questioned the feasibility of the project, our ability to deliver amidst a pandemic, and the validity of our soft approach, we onboarded Ana Balderas. Ana, expert in developing online participatory workshops, was pivotal in transforming a project drafted in pre-pandemic times, to one that could keep participants safe and still enable dialogues.


We asked the participating families to designate a main point of contact, and interestingly, all families chose a woman. These women were in charge of leading research activities, documenting them, and passing on the learnings. Alongside their families, they generated an understanding of the use and impact of energy in their everyday lives, via energy diaries and bespoke worksheets.

The worksheets were designed to have all family members discuss their energy use, but also the abstract things that energy enabled for them, such as well being and relationships, and how choosing between one source of energy and another impacts each of them and the planet differently. Participants learned to recognise how every member of the family used and saw energy, who was carrying the burden of enabling certain energy services, and how this often fell on the shoulders of women. For example, one of the families discussed the impacts of heating water via handheld heating elements, which not only brought about issues of safety, but also meant negotiating which family members, often women, skipped hot showers in favour of their children. This in turn shaped their decision making when choosing sustainable energy solutions.

Not enough…

However, while it was designed, led and implemented mostly by women, we failed at finding women installers of solar PV and other technologies (something that rings true in the UK too). At the installation stage of the project, the team consisted only of male-presenting members. Some participants, especially younger women, voiced their discomfort at having teams of men in their house.

We also noticed that while for other stages of the project women were leading conversations, at installation stage they would defer to their husbands. In our final interviews, main points of contact told us things like “I told them to explain it to him, and then he would explain it to me” or “it’s challenging for me to understand technology, so I asked if they could come on days my husband was home”. By not having women installers, we failed at providing a safe space for other women, and at making visible that women are a key part of all aspects of the energy transition.

Brighter futures

There is still work to do in closing the gender gap when it comes to energy, but fortunately, the energy transition is providing us with an opportunity for a double transformation; finding not only cleaner energy sources, but also providing fairer energy futures.

This is where my latest work with Big Solar Co-op picks up the baton, looking at making the most of underused rooftops across the UK. One of the key people pushing Big Solar Co-op forward is Noël Lambert, who has also experienced being a woman in other male-dominated industries. She is breaking this pattern through inclusive project design and being a ReWiRE (REGEN – Women in Renewable Energy) mentor, the aim of which is to support more women to lead the transition to a clean, decentralised and flexible energy system.

My journey with Big Solar Co-op has just started, but it is clear that as an organisation Big Solar Co-op is trying to do things differently, not only by recognising the localised nature of energy and the power of communities to fight the climate crisis, but also by ensuring safe spaces for everyone to flourish.

Karla followed a wiggly path between sciences and humanities which led her to energy in its multiple facets. She is an independent researcher and consultant who looks at energy solidarity, and recently joined Big Solar Co-op as node coordinator for Greater Birmingham. Big Solar Co-op is bringing together local organisations to eliminate duplication of efforts, make the most of economies of scale, but most importantly, to try to find space for everyone in the journey to net zero.

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