Shelly Whitlock, an engineer turned marketing strategist, shares how she got her start in working on producing an electric vehicle battery in the renewable energy industry, and took her passion to communicating it to the world.
Shelly, thank you for being here. Tell us a little bit about you and your background:
I grew up in Hawaii and some of my earliest memories are doing science experiments like mixing every one of my older sisters’ lotions to see if I could make an exciting chemical reaction. When it was time for college I knew I wanted to be an engineer and went on to do just that. I attended Oregon Tech for my bachelors and Masters degree in Renewable Energy Engineering and fell in love with Batteries. During school I got my first job in the Renewable energy industry as a project associate for a solar company where I later became a project manager having over 200 projects under my belt in Oregon. However, as soon as I took electrochemistry I knew I wanted to dive deeper into batteries as there was absolutely nothing cooler than being able to calculate the voltage of a battery based on the standard reduction potential table.
My first Battery job was a battery startup where I got to work on a next-generation lithium metal battery which utilized a 3D silicon wafer and where I learned to build cells and advance my electrochemical testing skills. Sadly due to the pandemic our lab closed- however I was quickly hired into Polaris Battery Labs where I continued research but this time to a greater variety of chemistries as we would consult for many different companies. One thing I noticed in the battery industry at large was how marketing and actual research really did not match up. It would be heart wrenching to see chemistries with so much promise on so little funds while I would hear of other technologies with so little research get so much funding. This led to me pioneering a company with the consultant who gave me my first renewable energy job as a project associate to help Cleantech and Renewable Energy Companies build brand identity and scale with the help of strategic marketing. This company is still running with the goal of helping the right companies get the spotlight they deserve. I have since come back to Polaris to help in development of new business lines and use my engineering and marketing skills for good!
What is a fun fact about you?
A fun fact about me is that in addition to being a certified battery nerd, I also do work as a business strategy consultant, and am also a certified Yoga Instructor.
Why do you think climate change and sustainability is such an important topic today?
Climate change and sustainability is such an important topic today because time is running out for us to be able to make a difference. The devastation of natural disasters is making a real impact in our lives. From the devastation of forest fires across the US, record low and high temperatures, and countless other incidences, we are starting to see a new level of extreme. However, being in marketing showed me how important finding common ground is in this conversation. Ultimately- we all want the same things. We want green grass for our kids to play on, nature to hike though, and clean water to drink. We have run out of time to argue with those who don’t agree, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get them on board. In solar, in markets where talk of climate change is divisive, we emphasize energy independence, saving money, and resilience to these customers to find common ground and see many people on board with solar.
Companies that pay special attention to this are able to make a great impact. It is not so much that words line up with mitigating climate change and encouraging sustainability. Its actions.
What do you envision your industry looking like 10 years from now?
We have 2 primary long term goals in the battery industry and that is 1- enable alternative chemistries that can eliminate our dependence on rare earth minerals and/or boost performance and 2- enable recycling of battery materials so that we can create a closed loop ecosystem for a safe and sustainable industry. The overall goal for the industry in the immediate term is to electrify everything so we can get things powered by renewables and decrease reliance on fossil fuels, however there is no denying that this does cause some controversy in the long term sustainability of the battery industry due to the need for increased mining to provide the raw materials necessary to supply the battery market. However, although solutions to electrify everything in a entirely sustainable way are not quite ready at this time and the need for mining is unavoidable to meet current demand, I envision in 10 years we will make breakthroughs in recycling and alternative chemistries to close the loop on the battery industry to create a more sustainable overall market.
What can the average person do to make a difference?
Whatever you can. The first assignment I had in my Renewable Energy Engineering Graduate program was to write a paper on why Natural Gas is good for the environment. To an idealistic graduate student this was appalling. I couldn’t imagine at the time having anything nice to say about anything that produces GHG emissions. However, this is precisely what this was for- to crush the illusion that making a difference for our planet is an all or nothing scenario. Ultimately we can’t always make the idealistic choice as much as we want to, and we won’t stop climate change by the massive actions of few, we will stop climate change by the few actions of the masses. It is a privilege to be able to buy a new electric car and charge it with solar panels from your house. If what you can do is trade your gas guzzler for a used hybrid with better gas mileage and cut your meat consumption down to just weekends then that is great. At a company level what we can do is make it easier for us all to do more.
Also please recycle your batteries- it will make those materials a lot easier to find when we need them later.
Shelly, thank you for being here and sharing your journey from battery engineer to communications expert.
Dylan Welch is the CEO and Host of Going Green, a podcast, website, and social media brand that highlights renewable energy, cleantech, and sustainable news.