Fighting climate change requires a structured and holistic approach to take on the political, economic and social challenges that nations face in shifting to clean energy !
Aditya Lolla, our next pathbreaker, Senior Electricity Policy Analyst at Ember, works with various national organizations, policy think tanks and government departments from different Asian countries to help countries move from coal power to renewable power.
Aditya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about leveraging his background in Sustainable Energy and specialising in Public Policy, driven by the memorable experiences of handling several solar electrification projects in different states of India and realising the impact of his work at the grassroots level .
For students, dream big, but have a plan, because unless you have plan you won’t have focus and only when you have focus, you can execute your vision !
Hi Aditya, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born and brought up in a typical Indian middle-class household in Hyderabad. Growing up, I had a strong inclination towards math and astronomy. So, I naturally took up the science (Math, Physics and Chemistry) stream in my high school years. I also enjoyed playing a lot of sports and was good enough to be seriously considering a career in football or cricket. Despite having such varied interests, like most young people coming from this part of the world, I ended up pursuing an engineering degree. Honestly speaking, though there wasn’t any strong reason back then for me to pursue this career path, I did not know that there were many alternative paths one could pursue. Nevertheless, an engineering degree did set me up quite well to pursue my professional goals later on.
What did you study after your school years?
I did my undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from Osmania University. Here I developed an interest in Renewable Energy, which led me to pursue a MSc in Sustainable Energy Systems from the University of Edinburgh. This was financially possible as I was awarded the Queen Jubilee Scholarship which was open back then for students pursuing a Masters’ degree in the UK. The application process was fairly standard and required me to clear multiple rounds.
Then, after working for 5 years in the field of clean energy, I pursued another Masters’ degree – Master of Public Policy from the University of Oxford. I was able to finance this completely through a student loan.
What drove you to choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
My interest in the field of climate change started with a documentary called “ An Unconventional Truth” by Al Gore. This interest slowly turned into a passion during my undergrad days. I was fortunate that I had an amazing mentor in one of my Professors at my university, who encouraged me to pursue my ideas in the domain of clean energy and develop them into academic projects.
A few years later, while I was working in rural India, managing solar power projects, my passion slowly took the shape of an ambition – an ambition to be a part of the solution to the present climate crisis. While my academic degrees gave me the necessary skills and confidence, my experience working in poor regions of India showed me how devastating climate change is for vulnerable communities who are fighting for their day-to-day survival. Today, climate change is pushing millions into extreme poverty and is one of the biggest challenges our generation is facing. And my career choices today are being defined by my need to help solve this crisis.
How did you plan the steps to get to where you are today?
My career to this point has been determined mainly by a few risks that I took in some crunch phases of my life. The first risk that I took was when I graduated with my first Masters’ degree. I rejected a job offer to work in a leading power utility company in Europe and chose to return to India with a view to work at the grassroots level in India. I reached out to my mentor from my undergrad who helped me set up a research lab at Osmania University to work on developing clean energy technologies. I even worked unpaid for almost a year before building the work up to a level in order to secure some funding from TEQIP-II, administered by the World Bank. This was a technical role where I carried out R&D on modern bioenergy systems, analyzed various clean energy technologies and eventually built a Microbial Fuel Cell system. This role not only allowed me to interact and collaborate with research bodies and environmental departments, but also created a good technical base to further my career.
Two years later, I had an offer to do a PhD from Stanford, but this was when I took another risk. I happened to attend a talk by a Professor from IIT Madras on solar power projects in rural India. I was so inspired that night that I wrote a very passionate email to him. He invited me over to his office and then offered me a role to work with his team with a promise that I would be able to travel and work in different corners of India. I decided to put my PhD plans on hold and decided to take up the job. Subsequently, I ended up managing more than 20 solar electrification projects in 12 different states in India covering more than 50000 homes. During this time, I realized that I would need to specialize in public policy to scale up the impact of my work. This led me to my second Masters’ degree.
Studying for a Master of Public Policy degree at Oxford was special experience as it allowed me to share a classroom with some of the most inspiring people from all around the world. The main emphasis of this programme is to teach how to use evidence in public service. Every government and most big companies in today’s world rely on public policy experts to develop appropriate strategies and solutions to complex real-world problems. This programme helped me understand different sides – from philosophical theories to economic approaches. More than that, it helped me learn more about my own strengths, areas I could improve in and the importance of setting goals in life, both professional and personal.
During this time, I realized that I can be patient with my career and decided to take another risk once I graduated. I decided to take a break from my job again and go on a gap year to develop skills that might help me reach those goals I set for myself. A few months later, the covid-19 pandemic hit the world and complicated my plans, but I focused only on working on myself and my skill set. I decided to use it as an opportunity to become the best version of myself instead of worrying about the job market and this paid off eventually as it helped me get a job which I am enjoying very much right now.
How did you get your first break?
I got my first break through networking. Once I knew that I wanted to work in rural parts of India, I reached out to my Professors from my undergrad. Fortunately, this led to an opportunity to start building my career.
When I pursued my second Masters at Oxford, it was almost as if I hit a career-reset button. The prospect of finding a new job from scratch was daunting especially because I did not want to compromise on my goals but I still needed to start paying back my loan. So, I had to make a mental adjustment to focus more on enjoying the process instead of worrying about the outcome. This helped me shift my focus from the stress I was feeling to interacting and networking with the right people. Ultimately, this led me to my next break to work as a Policy Officer with Gates Pathways Commission at Oxford. Here, I mainly supported the Commission’s work on implementing a digital policy toolkit in different countries and developed case studies on government projects/strategies in various developing countries.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
The challenges that I had to face were mainly related to the unconventional career pathway I ended up taking so far. Firstly, since there was no example for me to follow, it was difficult to judge whether my decisions and career choices were right. I had to overcome self-doubt, fear of failure, fear of not delivering on expectations and learn to back my own abilities.
Secondly, I had to learn to handle the anxieties of my family. I realized pretty quickly that it was quite natural for any parent to worry about their child’s career choices when those choices are very different from the societal standards. So, I decided to be as calm and understanding towards them as I wanted them to be with me. It took a few years for my family to appreciate the effort I was putting in and how I was planning my career. This stopped being a challenge ever since.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your role
I now work as a Senior Electricity Policy Analyst with a UK based climate think tank called Ember. In my role, I work with various national organizations, policy think tanks and government departments from different Asian countries to help countries move from coal power to renewable power.
There are two main aspects to my current role. One is to analyse electricity data available from government websites, evaluate energy policies and present the insights in the form of reports. Data analysis, modelling and report writing are the key skills needed to do this. The other is to hold discussions with other organizations, present the findings and come up with action plans to create change on the ground. Communication skills are key in achieving this. Broadly speaking, my typical day involves carrying out both these activities.
I love that my job allows me to work with different groups from different countries on a global problem like climate change. This is an area of work which is quickly expanding in Asia and I feel excited to learn new possibilities in this fight against climate change every day.
How does your work benefit the society?
Like I previously mentioned, climate change is one of our generation’s biggest challenges. We have depended on fossil fuels for more than 100 years to achieve development and now the next 30 years are extremely crucial in saving our planet. Many countries, including India, are unable to stop burning fossil fuels like coal. Everyone knows that renewable energy is good, but most countries are finding it difficult to transition from coal to renewables due to various economic and political reasons. This is the next big challenge for governments across the world. So, working in this field will allow you to help solve the next big crisis after the covid-19 pandemic.
Most memorable work?
That is a tough one as every job I have had is special to me for different reasons. With each job, I have had some ups that built my confidence and some downs that helped me learn, making my overall journey so far memorable. So, I always like to think that my most memorable piece of work is going to be the next project I work on.
Having said that, my role with IIT Madras completely changed my life. In this role, for the first time in my life, I had the chance to travel to different corners of India, live with poor communities and use my abilities to try and help people. From the villages in Thar desert of Rajasthan to migratory camps for HIV positive orphans in Karnataka to villages affected by militancy in Manipur, I was able to truly witness India while managing solar power projects. Even today, I carry these memories with me to remind myself of the beginning of my journey and give myself a constant reminder that I still have a long way to go.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I feel there are three things students should keep in mind, especially when beginning their careers.
- Be a little patient and kind with yourself. We live in a world where societal expectations and pressure can put a lot of stress on students and can stop them from achieving their full potential. For most people, it usually takes time to understand themselves, know what they are good at and what they need.
- Dream big, but with a plan. You need to be able to dream about your future before you can achieve it. And once you are in love with your idea of your future, you need a plan to make it happen. One of my favorite things to do for myself even now is to daydream about how my life is going to be and what I will do to make it happen.
- Be fearless in your thought and approach. Whatever it is that you choose to do, have complete faith and trust in yourself. Today, we have more opportunities and more possibilities compared to any of the previous generations. It is upto us to grab those opportunities and do well. The world is truly your oyster.
I intend to continue working with different groups and contribute to solutions to tackle climate change. Once we have overcome the current pandemic, I wish to travel to different parts of the world and meet people from different communities to learn how climate change is impacting or has impacted them. Then, I want to write about their stories, the challenges they face and possible solutions that can help.