"Pittsburgh is leading world-class dialogue about sustainability, technology, and innovation and the global impact we can make."
Newly boomeranged back to Pittsburgh, we sat down with Sarah Olexsak, the Manager of Transportation Electrification at Duquesne Light, to talk about how technology is impacting the electric utility industry, why Pittsburgh stands out as a leader, and what brought her home to the city of bridges.
What do you see as the most cutting edge technology that’s happening at Duquesne Light?
Part of what I considered before taking the position at Duquesne Light was, are they innovative, are they pushing the boundaries of traditional technology, and do they value sustainability? What convinced me was their dedication to being a next generation electric company and moving beyond the status quo of just “keeping the lights on.” We’re embracing the smart grid and using applications that are necessary to move our region toward a stronger, more reliable, more efficient network.
I manage our company’s electric vehicle (EV) and charging station infrastructure strategy. We expect to see 100,000 EVs registered in our service territory in the next 20 years, so at Duquesne Light we’re working to prepare for that transition. That includes customer education about the benefits of EVs, like lower fuel costs and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, less reliance on imported fuel, and better utilization of the grid.
How does the collaborative nature of our region contribute to technological advancement?
Only a few months into my role I’m already engaging with a wide variety of organizations. For example, I’m working with a team at the Port Authority of Allegheny County to support the launch of an electric bus pilot and plan for the supporting charging infrastructure —this is public private partnership in action. So many different players across our area are putting the time and resources in now to stimulate the EV market and deploy the necessary infrastructure to help it grow.
You spent 12 years in D.C. working for places like the U.S. Department of Energy and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, so why make the move to Pittsburgh?
My husband Jacob and I had built our careers and advanced our education in Washington, but we wanted to shake things up. Many of our DC friends had moved on to places like San Francisco, Denver, and Portland, so those were contenders for our “next city” choice. But Pittsburgh was beginning to be talked about in the same breath as those cities. We were ready to be closer to our families, have a lower cost of living, and be a part of a community, so we started researching Pittsburgh.
It was incredibly important to me that I made the right career transition. Given that my subject matter expertise is pretty niche, I quickly realized that I was going to have to put some real effort into the job search process. Over time I reached out to around 40 Pittsburgh professionals that I had no prior connection to and almost every single one was responsive. Not only is that kind of outreach and engagement unheard of, everyone I spoke to was so encouraging of my return to Pittsburgh that it made me feel like I’d developed a social and professional network before I even landed in the city.
For all those who struggle with networking and connections, how did you do it?!
While I grew up north of the city, I didn’t have any family or friends who were involved in my field here. In fact, none of the connections that I made were through any of my existing networks, so I had to build it all from the ground up. My advice to someone looking to relocate to Pittsburgh would be to cast a broad net. I started with non-profits and academic institutions because those kind of organizations always have partnerships that are great to tap into. I also think it’s important to have confidence in your own experiences and what you bring to the table. That diversity of thought lends itself well to Pittsburgh, which is a big little town that’s incredibly well-connected and open to big ideas.
You’re still exploring, but what are some of your favorite places in the Burgh so far?
We chose to live on the North Side and we’re really enjoying exploring the many neighborhoods here. Brugge on North and Allegheny City Brewing are great, and I’ve been to a bunch of events at Teutonia Männerchor, a German social club. The historic cultural social club scene is a unique asset in Pittsburgh and there are a lot of people putting effort into introducing new and young people to preserve them. DC is such a transient city, so it is great being back in Pittsburgh where there is a celebrated cultural heritage that’s welcoming to newcomers and discovery.
What’s something that surprised you about Pittsburgh?
Nationally, people are starting to associate the city with technology and innovation. When I would tell people that I was thinking about moving to Pittsburgh, I wasn’t met with, “why?” Instead it was, “Oh, I’ve heard great things are happening there!” That’s a transition in recent years and it’s exciting. I’m seeing thought leaders coalesce in Pittsburgh to have world-class dialogue on a national stage about sustainability, technology, and innovation and the global impact we can make. It’s fantastic and I can’t wait to be a part of what we do next.