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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker

ENERGY TO SERVE by Ellen Donker

A CHS grad drives environmental change

Matters Magazine asked Carol Petrallia of the Columbia High School archives group to help us highlight a notable female graduate. Without hesitation, she suggested Carla Peterman, class of 1995, who was inducted into the CHS Hall of Fame in 2013. We thank Carla Peterman for speaking with us and reflecting on her journey, starting with her time in the South Orange-Maplewood school district.

Carla Peterman knew what she wanted to do from an early age. She enjoyed being involved in student government at South Orange Middle School and Columbia High School, serving in a variety of roles including class president in 8th and 9th grades. But it wasn’t until her brother Chad gave her a present when she was 16 years old that she saw the beginnings of a career path.

The present was a copy of A Sand County Almanac, a book that opened her mind to the unintended consequences humans can have on the environment. Chad also shared his term paper on the Love Canal environmental disaster, which he had written while a student at Princeton University, and she became fascinated by the connection of environmental policy with issues of laws, race and poverty.

That new perspective – the intersection of government and the environment – led her to pursue a career in policy and energy initiatives. Each step of her academic path demonstrates her diligence and curiosity to become an expert in the field of energy.

After graduating from Columbia High School, Peterman received a B.A. in history from Howard University, graduating summa cum laude with double minors in environmental science and biology. She was selected to be a Rhodes Scholar, the first female from an HBCU (historically black college or university), and spent three years at Oxford University, where she earned a master of science degree in environmental change and management, followed by an M.B.A. The latter sharpened her understanding of how corporations operate and the impact of policy initiatives on their profits.

Coming home to the States, Peterman worked for a banking firm that financed energy investment. But she realized that she actually wanted to be in the policy realm, where she could have a hand in developing policies and programs that had positive impacts on the environment. Once again, she headed back to school, this time earning a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary environment and policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

By 2011, Peterman had amassed experience in finance, nonprofits, and academia. “It prepared me well to understand energy regulation and work with diverse stakeholders,” she says. In addition, while researching for her dissertation, she studied government programs for renewable energy, and also served on the board of a prominent utility customers’ advocacy organization. Her work was noticed by California’s governor, Jerry Brown, who appointed her to the California Energy Commission, followed by a six-year term as Commissioner for the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). She was the first African American commissioner at either organization, and the youngest person ever to serve at CPUC.

Asked about her accomplishments there, Peterman replies that she is “proud of the work I’ve done to support clean energy, including energy efficiency, electric vehicles, and battery storage. As a CPUC commissioner I led the adoption of the largest utility investment program for electric vehicle charging, and the first utility mandates to develop energy storage.”

Peterman’s term as commissioner ended last year. As of October 1, 2019, she assumed a position as senior vice president of Regulatory Affairs at Southern California Edison. No longer working for the state government, Peterman is putting her deep experience in clean energy to good use at an all-electric utility.

It’s clear that she is energized by her work. She says she does it because “I believe everyone deserves access to clean and sustainable energy and that smart policies, planning, and collaboration can make that possible.”

On a personal note, Peterman is also energized by her 3-year-old son and a husband she describes as wonderfully supportive. She credits her parents for helping to shape her perspective, and is grateful for her education at CHS that aptly prepared her for her future endeavors. Although Peterman lives in California, she takes pride in noting that New Jersey is a leader in clean energy.

All this talk about clean energy prompted one last question: What car does Carla Peterman drive? Her answer: A Chevy Volt – a plug-in hybrid. That answer almost took us into the challenges of getting more people to drive electric vehicles and to have choices that meet their needs. But that’s a discussion for a future issue.

Ellen Donker looks forward to following Carla Peterman’s work and has put A Sand County Almanac on her reading list.


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