Sitting in a physics class at Marian High School looking at mathematical models and listening to a teacher talk about Earth’s limited resources, native Omahan Erin Cheese found her calling.
But with two accountants for parents, a career in the nascent field of energy technology wasn’t the easiest of sales.
“It took some convincing,” Cheese, a former OPPD-funded intern said, in a telephone interview between meetings at her current job. She is now a Science and Technology Policy fellow at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. working for the SunShot Initiative.
Admittedly, it was a bit of a leap of faith for Cheese.
“I was a little hesitant about it; our first class were guinea pigs,” Cheese said of being part of Creighton’s first class of energy technology majors. “But as I told my parents, I was passionate about learning more about renewable energy. It was a great environment to learn and be active in the program.”
She wasted little time at Creighton and was involved in a slew of projects and organizations. She was named a Clare Boothe Luce Woman in Science scholar, and an Electrical Engineering Research assistant in the prestigious Kansas State Research Experience for Undergraduates program, where she installed newly developed thin-film flexible solar panels and studied their output and feasibility. She also was elected to the board of directors for Nebraskans for Solar. And that doesn’t begin to cover her involvement at the university.
Cheese said expanding solar access, particularly to low-income households and regardless of roof space accessibility, is what she is dedicated to. In Washington, the 24-year-old is working to do just that.
“Nebraska and the Midwest has great potential for solar,” she said. “I want to see the partnership between those who want solar and the utilities to grow.”
Cheese was in Omaha this fall talking about the National Community Solar Partnership at a conference at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Now she hopes her hometown will take part in a new SunShot Initiative program called the “Solar in Your Community Challenge.” The early application deadline was Jan. 6 and the next deadline is March 17.
Cheese said there are currently 135 organizations involved in the SunShot Initiative’s National Community Solar Partnership including financiers, academics and non-profits.
SunShot recently announced a competition called Solar in Your Community Challenge aimed at making solar more accessible and inclusive, especially to underserved groups.
The contest features a total of $5 million in cash prizes and technical assistance over 18 months.
Cheese’s contract with SunShot ends in August and then she will start graduate school to study public policy and management.
One of Cheese’s professors at Creighton, Dr. Andrew Baruth, called her the perfect spokesperson for the work being done at the university’s Energy Technology program as the program continues to grow.
“She is a beautiful idealist, she’s very practical in how she thinks in her idealism,” he said. “She’s always looking at it from the perspective of what it will cost. She talks with the economists and the marketing people.”
Baruth caller her the “archetypal Energy Technology student” who embraced all the facets of what he wants to see in the program’s students and graduates. He cited her desire to understand the complexities of policy, economics, client engagement, as well as the technology of energy production and distribution.
Baruth agreed that Cheese was the perpetual “guinea pig” at Creighton and played a key role in the energy technology program’s development. When Baruth heard she landed an interview with the DOE, he knew their search was over.
“They had found a winner because of her incredible problem-solving skills and even more amazing talents in client interaction,” he said. “When she came back from the DC interview and told me that it was the addition of her direct involvement with meaningful undergraduate research in my material science lab as an OPPD-funded intern that really pushed her ahead of the pack, it was easily one of the proudest moments of my career.”