Learning from rivers with Board Member Gia Schneider

Haley Walker
Haley Walker
Former Senior Director of Advancement for The Freshwater Trust
English   |   Español

Gia Schneider is CEO and Co-Founder of Natel Energy. She’s also a member of The Freshwater Trust’s (TFT’s) Board of Directors. Gia holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from MIT and has 17 years of experience in the energy industry. While in the utility practice at Accenture, she provided strategic and tactical solutions to several major energy companies and has significant experience in energy-related strategy development and deal valuation. After Accenture, she worked at Constellation Energy on optimizing generation asset value. Gia left Constellation in 2004 to help start the energy trading desk at Credit Suisse; and in 2005, she started the carbon emissions trading desk at Credit Suisse, growing it to a profitable business in its first year. Gia is passionate about finding economically viable solutions to mitigate climate change, foster sustainable development and produce inexpensive renewable energy. In her spare time, she can be found surfing, kiting, cooking, dancing and gardening with friends and family. Director of Communications Haley Walker was able to speak with Gia about where she comes from, what she believes in and why TFT. 

What was your first connection to water?

I was born and raised on a farm in Texas. My brother was obsessed with fish and fishing. Every year, we would make a trip to southern Colorado, near Gunnison, and camp there for two weeks fishing. We loved being out in the wilderness. We even did a research project to understand and quantify the health of one specific part of the watershed compared to another part of it. One fork of the river runs through Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and is ranched, so cattle graze it. The other fork runs through the wilderness, and it had a ton of beaver dams. We used to ask my dad why he thought the fishing was a lot worse on one fork, and he encouraged us to really discover that answer. We got a grant and then collected a ton of bugs. I was my brother’s research assistant for that project!

Gia and her brother Abe sampling bugs in Colorado for their research project.

It seems like your dad was a big influence on who you are today, yeah?

Most definitely. I learned about climate change from my dad. He lectured my brother and me a ton about it when we were kids. “The basic science is clear – CO2 traps heat – and the physics are incontrovertible.” “More greenhouse gases in our atmosphere means more heat driving our water cycle.” “Climate change is water change.” He really pushed us to think: Can we create solutions that help to move the needle on reducing emissions but also improve the resilience of our watersheds? That’s what I’ve been doing.

In the simplest way possible, what does Natel do?

Natel comes from the words “natural electric” and is grounded by looking at how nature’s engineers – beavers – interact with watersheds. We are focused on how to harness the awesome power of rivers to produce reliable renewable energy while maintaining or restoring healthy rivers. Our mission is to mitigate climate change and build climate resilience by providing the hardware and software that enables a 100% renewable grid via a sustainable hydropower backbone.

What’s it like still working with your brother all these years?

In the early days, there were some investors who were uncomfortable investing in a sibling team. They’d say, “I have to admit the sibling thing makes me concerned because I would never start a company with my sibling.” But we have very complementary yet different skill-sets; and there is a level of mutual trust that runs very deep. I frankly am not sure we would have survived through some of the most challenging times if we didn’t have that combination of orthogonal but complementary skills, and fundamental trust. It’s been cool to see our relationship grow over time.

Why hydro? What’s promising to you about it?

It is a reliable, renewable energy resource. It is complementary to wind and solar, and if we can both improve existing plants and build new ones in a sustainable, watershed-positive way, that can help us build more wind and solar and accelerate the transition to a carbon-free grid. But the way we have done it in the past has been very detrimental. Now we ask: how can we get the benefits of hydropower, better learn how natural systems function, and be better engineers and bolster natural watershed function in ways that will be useful and not as harmful?

So, how does Natel do hydro differently?

We looked first to the past – to what our watersheds in the Western US looked like before we removed most of the beavers and their dams and before we built our own much larger dams and diversions. That landscape from the past has clues to what a more sustainable, climate resilient future could be – much more distributed structures that maintain river connectivity. To make such a vision possible, at an achievable cost, you need a fish-safe turbine that works well with a minimum of civil works (excavation, concrete) to install. The turbine needs to be fish-safe, and the standard for fish-safety needs to be very high; we aim for >99%. And, the whole solution is distributed with much smaller civil works – on the order of 2-10 meters.

We are looking at civil works that are 10-15 feet. There are documented, naturally-occurring log jams that can get that big.

Gia and her company Natel Energy are developing modern, sustainable hydropower.

What drew you to TFT?

Joe and I met about 10 years ago. I ranted on about restoration hydropower. How do we find solutions that are grounded in data and science? We both believed that it’s essential to create solutions, policies and pathways that encourage evolution. And we shared a common philosophy that we should strive to quantify the benefits we design to achieve and then use the results from early projects to inform better designs on subsequent projects. By doing that, we can create a virtuous cycle that improves over time and can – importantly when we are dealing with the realities of a changing climate – adapt over time as well.

What’s the biggest piece of advice you have for women in leadership? 

There is bias, and it’s important not to be naïve about that. I do think that’s changing, and the pace of change is hopefully increasing. But it would be naïve to assume it’s not there, and knowing the field ahead of you helps you plan. An important lesson I’ve learned is to take care to figure out what my particular strengths are and lead from them. Some women leaders lead in very subtle ways and some in more direct ways. Both can be very effective. Think about what your style is and what resonates with you. Then, figure out how you can help each of your team members lead authentically from their own strength and place.

It’s also really easy to take a good thing – self-awareness and a willingness to learn – and be overly critical of yourself and what you have or have not done well. I work hard to distinguish between self-awareness and regret. The latter is an unhelpful emotion. I do care about learning from my past failings and mistakes, but I really try not to spend time regretting. I just don’t know how that emotional energy turns into something that’s positive.

Has it been challenging to work during this time?

It has required a lot of effort to ensure we stay on track against our objectives, and the fact that we are on track is testament to how fortunate I am in the team of which I am a part! Half our team already worked on a distributed basis and then half worked out of an office in Alameda. So, we already had a number of tools, processes and culture in place that helped make the transition to 100% distributed easier than it would otherwise have been. Also, there are positives that are coming out of this – namely the reduced expectation of air travel. I used to get on a red eye to the East Coast at least once, sometimes twice a quarter, work for the day and come back that night – not even spending a night there. Expectations to be somewhere in person have changed. If the coronavirus allows those of us who used to have to travel to work, to reduce that travel – that’s a positive for the environment and for personal work-life balance! A more subtle potential positive is that the virus has upended so much of “normal life”. There is so much inertia embedded in life. It locks people into a status quo. When the virus changed what normal life looked like, I think people saw how things can change on numerous fronts. Whether it is social justice, climate change or anything else, things can change. And, if enough people believe that change is possible, my confidence in our ability to tackle the most daunting challenges is high.

Do you have a favorite quote you live by?

There’s one from Thomas Edward Lawrence (more colloquially known as Lawrence of Arabia). “Nothing is written.” I also like one from a book by Cormac McCarthy, “Between the wish and the thing, the world lies waiting.”

July 27, 2020

#board of directors    #energy    #hydropower    

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