how to deliver responsible, sustainable energy solutions to remote communities
She works in the remote communities of Australia and the Pacific and see so many examples of abandoned engineering..
We’ve just left them with no support and no money to have these things maintained
Unfortunately, the solution is complex. From ensuring good systems are installed in the first place, through to robust community engagement and financial support for proper life-long maintenance. That is just the beginning to the changes that need to be made.
Ruby feels that her becoming an engineer was less of a choice and more of a realisation. Perhaps fate even.
In year 10 she was given the great big book of careers and decided to read the whole book cover to cover for inspiration. Perhaps luckily, she started at A so it wasn’t long before she reached engineering. And as she read about what was involved in selecting engineering as a career, she knew that engineering was going to be her future.
Even though she had zero prior knowledge about engineering before that time…
it just spoke to me
Extra discussions during the episode
Future: There will always be a place for engineers in society. It’s a safe job. But there will be changes. Digital transformation, collaboration, greater diversity and even seeing a lot of entrepreneur engineers.
women in engineering – I think that we’re going to make a really profound change to the way that engineering is going.
Advice: Follow your passion and don’t give up your identity
you can still be yourself and be an engineer
Everything really. But seriously – computers…. just how?!
I have no idea how you build a computer without a computer
Ruby Heard is a versatile and ambitious entrepreneur and electrical engineer with global experience and a penchant for sustainability.
She began her career with Arup designing electrical and lighting systems for iconic buildings in Melbourne. In 2015 she transferred to the Arup San Francisco Office to apply her skills to renewable energy systems – complex solar arrays and microgrids.
After she completed a 6-month expedition for Engineers Without Borders in 2018, to support the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees energy team in Ethiopia, Ruby founded Alinga Energy Consulting – a socially conscious engineering consultancy that provides specialist energy services to the commercial, government and NGO sectors within Australia and internationally.
Her company has a particular focus on areas where energy accessibility and affordability issues prevent or limit the availability of reliable power. With indigenous heritage originating from the Djaru people of the Kimberley, Ruby is especially driven to find solutions for Indigenous communities. Ruby was awarded Young Engineer of the Year Victoria by Engineers Australia in 2019.
Ruby joins Engineering Heroes during the 2020 NAIDOC week celebrations.
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 4 Episode 25
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Ruby Heard
Ruby: [00:00:00] I didn’t know what it was until I picked up that book and read that there was a career that was known as engineering, and it just, it just spoke to me. It was problem solving. It had everything
[00:00:11]Mel or Dom: [00:00:11] what attributes on that engineering card really called out to you?
[00:00:16] Ruby: [00:00:16] It was the, the problem solving was the main thing that grabbed me. But also I was, I was kind of stuck during high school, in a space where I enjoyed all of my classes and I was, you know, performing pretty well at all of them. So I really love psychology and I really loved legal studies and maths, obviously science and Even English as well, actually.
[00:00:37] And so I read this and I read Oh, well, an engineer writes reports and an engineer has to understand client motivations and the engineer has to deal with legal issues as well. And that just, that said engineering is everything. It’s all of these things you don’t have to choose. You can be an engineer and you can do literally everything.
[00:00:56]Mel or Dom: [00:00:56] So, unfortunately zoology never would have stood a chance like that. It was that
[00:01:01] Ruby: [00:01:01] It did not, not, not while engineering was there, no
[00:01:05] Mel or Dom: [00:01:05] Thank God you didn’t work backwards.
[00:01:12] Ruby: [00:01:12] part of that year. I think.
[00:01:14]Mel or Dom: [00:01:14] And so what was the first project that you worked on as an engineer?
[00:01:18]Ruby: [00:01:18] It is really hard to remember what that was. by the time I had, I’d been an engineer for five years, I had charged to over 200 different job numbers at the company I worked for. So I, I touched, yeah, I touched so many projects. So that’s why it’s a little bit hard for me to remember, but I do remember that it was lighting design.
[00:01:40] When I first went into, I worked for Arup when I first came out of university and they needed help in the lighting team and they didn’t really have a lot going on for engineers, for a grad engineer. So I got swept into the lighting design team and I kind of hung out there for about two years.
[00:01:57] And I think that my first projects were lighting design for Metro train stations in Victoria. So as lighting design goes, that’s not very fancy, but.
[00:02:09] Mel or Dom: [00:02:09] It’s important though.
[00:02:10] Ruby: [00:02:10] Yeah. And now I can, I can point to a lot of lighting installations at train stations now, and then say I did that. I know I did that.
[00:02:21] Mel or Dom: [00:02:21] don’t do that at all. Like it’s so rare if engineered engineer’s spoken to like, even, even the parents, they go over and they call, I think one of the earlier podcasts a little while ago, their mum would call up going, Rosie, I’m going over your bridge, your tunnel. I can just imagine that phone call.
[00:02:42] Ruby: [00:02:42] it’s the engineers, I think to have something tangible, to be able to say, I, I, I did that. I built that. I made it, I made that difference.
[00:02:49]Mel or Dom: [00:02:49] what a good little start. So we’re going to jump forward a little at late. What did you say? 200 client 200
[00:02:57] Ruby: [00:02:57] 200 projects. I know. when I gave my presentation for my charter ship interview, I was actually told that I was misrepresenting myself by saying that I had worked on 200 projects and I said, but I have, I really have.
[00:03:12] Mel or Dom: [00:03:12] I can’t believe you kept track of them either though.
[00:03:14] Ruby: [00:03:14] Well, no, the system, the system kept track, so it was easy enough to print off the list of every project I’d work on.
[00:03:22] So that’s nice to just kind of reminisce
[00:03:24]Mel or Dom: [00:03:24] it’s amazing that you can have input on that many different projects in such a short period of time, but it is something that like, It it’s like, there’s so many jobs out there that you end up sort of doing one of them moving in the next one and then moving in and running a whole heap of them at the same time, particularly in consulting.
[00:03:40]so it’s a great way to start your engineering career. Get a great experience. So let’s fast forward. I’m going to say hundreds of projects to what are you doing now?
[00:03:52] Ruby: [00:03:52] So right now I have my own company, which is very different and very exciting for me. So in 2018, I started, Alinga Energy Consulting. And so that was so that I could focus on the type of work that I really wanted to do the kind of stuff that is really fulfilling to me. the type of work that most other companies might do as pro bono work, I wanted to find out how can I make this, my main focus?
[00:04:19]so yeah, I’ve been working on that for the last 18 months or so, and just absolutely loving it.
[00:04:25]Mel or Dom: [00:04:25] and so what does Alinga do? What sort of engineering do you do as part of your practice?
[00:04:30] Ruby: [00:04:30] Yeah. So we do feasibility studies, research, design work, all are all centered around energy services for remote communities. so we really focus on off-grid stuff, and looking after the, the vulnerable populations within Australia, also do some work in the Pacific.
[00:04:48]Mel or Dom: [00:04:48] And are you still based in Melbourne or have you relocated somewhere else?
[00:04:53] Ruby: [00:04:53] No, I, I left Melbourne, a year ago about exactly a year ago. I left to come up to the sunshine coast. So I am enjoying the weather up here. And the lack of COVID up here.
[00:05:06] Mel or Dom: [00:05:06] Dodged a bullet there!. And a lack of New South Wales people up there at the moment as well. And, um, and so it’s just something that stuck out at me at what you just said that you wanted to do what was ordinarily pro bono work, but do it as a company like, so to earn money out of that, can you expand a bit about that?
[00:05:29] How did you do that? Well, I’m going to move moving this
[00:05:32] Ruby: [00:05:32] Well, it’s a, it’s a work in progress. So I’m always, I’m always trying to figure out how to reposition myself. And get into that space and make that my main thing. So obviously it’s hard to keep a company going commercially when you want to do things that, are usually pro bono or low bono. So I do a good percentage of my work is, is in that space.
[00:05:56]and then I do have to do some more commercial type stuff to balance that out. but I recently was awarded a grant by the Federal Government to go over to WA and do a feasibility studies for remote communities over there. And so that’s basically set me up so that now I can refocus the business pretty much a hundred percent over towards that sort of stuff that I’m really happy to do.
[00:06:20]Mel or Dom: [00:06:20] So I was just trying to work out how you make ends meet and how it all connects together, because It’s not your typical consulting engineer model, but it’s a very important area to work in though.
[00:06:31] Ruby: [00:06:31] Yeah, I guess I do have to do things a little bit differently. I’m not growing for growth’s sake. I’m not trying to take on a lot of employees just to have a lot of employees. So I have to be more careful about how I grow and when’s right for that. my computer monitor come from the op shop and it costs $12, things like that, things like that.
[00:06:52] So I don’t spend money where it, where I don’t have to spend money, I guess.
[00:06:56] Mel or Dom: [00:06:56] So being in the energy space, does that mean you cover off all aspects? So it’s not just predominantly solar. You, do you also do wind and batteries? Do you look at, as across the board or do you specialize in certain areas?
[00:07:08]Ruby: [00:07:08] So I do specialize mostly in solar and battery storage and micro grids that involve solar and battery storage. That’s just kind of the area I fell into. And then every now and then something will pop up with wind and I do have some certificates in other renewable energy technologies as well.
[00:07:26]Mel or Dom: [00:07:26] Cause I can imagine it actually be a fairly big gap in the market in regards to people not really understanding what they need to do in order to implement those sorts of services as well. do you find that the clients still don’t really understand what they need to do or what’s available to them in regards to renewables? Is it still something that there’s a gap purely because the knowledge isn’t there in relation to what they need to do in order to, to move into that market.
[00:07:53] Ruby: [00:07:53] I think even some engineers are still confused about, about what to do in this space. I think some people think that renewable energies is a lot more simple than it actually is. cause I might come from a background of traditional fossil fuel generation, which is just one level of generation all the time consistently.
[00:08:14] And that’s not what we deal with with these intermittent sources. I think a lot of people are confused about how it works and What’s economically viable. And that’s why you need people like me, engineers to tell you to do the calculations and to tell you what will work for you and what won’t, because people’s assumptions just tend to be just wildly off.
I suppose what I think is a major challenge for, my particular space of engineering is how to deliver responsible, sustainable energy solutions to remote communities. So it’s quite easy to take a solar system and some battery storage and just drop it in a remote location.
[00:08:56] But what I’m interested in is how do we make that sustainable? How do we make it long lasting? How do we make sure it gets maintained? And that there’s funds that are available, continuously to maintain that. And so that’s, that’s the area that I’m working in to try and figure out how we can do this better.
[00:09:14] Basically, what’s best practice for remote energy systems. And right now there are energy systems that have basically been abandoned, just all over the planet, really. And what we’ve done is taken in many cases, taken these systems to a remote location, we’ve given people power for a very short amount of time.
[00:09:35] And then we’ve just left them with no support and no money to have these things maintained. And now essentially they have waste. We’ve just dumped waste in these remote locations. And in some cases it’s toxic waste as well. And so what I focus on is, how can we prevent this in the future? How can we do a little bit better?
[00:09:54] And, not waste money and not waste resources on these types of things anymore.
[00:09:58]Mel or Dom: [00:09:58] can you give an example of a situation like that you’re explaining about this abandoned engineering.
[00:10:04]Ruby: [00:10:04] So right now there are systems across Australia that have, have lost their support. So the Bushlight program is a classic where they did a lot of things right when they initially installed them. And they worked fantastically and many of them still work fantastically today. But they’ve also lost their maintenance funding.
[00:10:26] So the Commonwealth government is no longer funding that the maintenance of these systems. And so they lack the maintenance that they need, the level of maintenance, there are still companies involved in maintaining them, but not to the level that they should be maintained. So that’s just one example of some systems that are going to start failing because they’re not getting that support that they should be.
[00:10:46] Mel or Dom: [00:10:46] And is there an opportunity to reuse or reutilize these systems or is it a case of a large proportion of them have gone past their expiry date because they haven’t been maintained.
[00:10:56]Ruby: [00:10:56] Well, it’s more about how do we make sure that they don’t fall into disrepair in the first place. but I mean, panels just seem to continue working. so most of those haven’t reached the end of their life and they still work. And then there’s some battery systems, which also have, a lot of life left in them as well.
[00:11:14] But, inverters tend to go first and, if they don’t get replaced, then it doesn’t matter if you’ve got batteries that still have life and panels that still have life. If you don’t have that driving engine of the inverter there.
[00:11:26]Mel or Dom: [00:11:26] it sounds like an absolutely massive problem, but what is the scale of this problem?
[00:11:31]Ruby: [00:11:31] Well, that’s, that’s another question entirely. my research into remote communities is showing that we really don’t have enough information about just about the remote communities, let alone about their energy systems in particular. And so this is why I, I want to do the PhD because I want to get out there in communities and start to document what’s out there and what works and what doesn’t work, just so that we have that information so that then we can start working on, how do we improve this and what’s the best solution?
[00:12:01] Mel or Dom: [00:12:01] So is it basically, engineering from a bygone era? It’s probably the wrong thing to say, but was it a, it’s a case of there was good work done many decades ago and it’s just been forgotten and no one even really knows where it is or what’s what’s going on with it is that is that’s what happening?
[00:12:18]Ruby: [00:12:18] Yeah, sometimes, but sometimes it’s actually more of a case of, it was bad work done in the first place because there’s a lot less responsibility, I guess when you’re working in a remote location to do the job well. so there are a lot of systems that just weren’t installed right in the first place.
[00:12:35]those companies possibly don’t even exist anymore, so they can’t be held responsible for the work that they’ve done. So it’s, yeah, it’s quite a mixed and complex problem.
[00:12:46]Mel or Dom: [00:12:46] So what are some of the solutions that you see that you could potentially, implement for this problem?
[00:12:52] Ruby: [00:12:52] I have started to survey the experts in this space. So, obviously starting with people who’ve worked on the Bushlight program and some other programs like that. So I am starting to put together a picture of what the solution might look like and, what has been done really well. And then where we’ve left space to improve, I guess. So I am starting to pull that together, but I, I feel like I’ve, I want to get out there and get a lot more information before I start saying. What the, the exact solution is. But, for me, one important thing is, you know, we haven’t done enough to pull separate projects together.
[00:13:29] So doing systems in isolation, different people coming in and installing different things. We’re just not getting the efficiencies that we could be, I guess, by installing similar equipment and setting up a maintenance schedule that goes through different communities and a training program that trains many different communities at once.
[00:13:48]so I think Bushlight was the last thing that really kind of had that level of continuity between communities. And now we haven’t done that since that closed in 2013. So I like to see how it can bring back some of those really good things that Bushlight had.
[00:14:03]Mel or Dom: [00:14:03] I can imagine if you take these systems and then set them up, but, and then go, there you go.
[00:14:08] All right, we’ll see you later. Congratulations. You now have solar power. And, but if you don’t have community engagement, so they understand what they’re getting, what it’ll look, what it can do for them, how to maintain it, where to look for any problems. Then, then you may, as what’s this, you might as well be dropping a box in the middle of the, the area for.
[00:14:30] For no good reason. It’s is that something that you’re seeing in, you know, in initially your brief studies, but that kind of, that community engagement and ownership is missing in some of these things
[00:14:41] Ruby: [00:14:41] Yeah. Sometimes, sometimes that’s a key component. and obviously, I mean, it’s easier sometimes to go in and do that and just say, well, we brought these people and they’re going to install it and you know, please, please don’t try and help us. That will slow us down. Let’s install it. Let’s get the pitches for the funder.
[00:14:58]that looks great. And, and yeah, and nobody follows up to see about the maintenance and to see if these people really understand the system and, and know how to look after it. it’s not happening all the time. And sometimes there is a really good focus on the engagement part. When I was working in Ethiopia with UN HCR, that was definitely a big focus for us was to spend time with the community and to develop energy cooperatives that would take over the maintenance and then also, create businesses to design more systems down the track.
[00:15:32]and yeah, totally, absolutely necessary because there was people over there who were installing systems and batteries were blowing up. And, you know, throwing battery acid everywhere, inside a room. And yeah, just because of a lack of technical knowledge, they didn’t know that they had to design it this way and didn’t know about the protection and those sorts of things.
[00:15:52]Mel or Dom: [00:15:52] you touched on that community is a key component. Can you, give us any other key components that might be critical in ensuring this engineering doesn’t get abandoned in these remote communities?
[00:16:05] Ruby: [00:16:05] Yes. So I think, we do need to have some kind of system where people take responsibility. So, I don’t know exactly what that looks like yet, but, I’m thinking about some kind of national database where we kind of keep track of systems on a whole, rather than leaving it down to just the community level who might not have the right communication means to get the maintenance done or that you don’t have the funds to get those done. So just to have more of like a, a top down, look, a visual on, on what systems are installed and when they might need maintenance. I think that could be a really key component of doing this more successfully.
[00:16:45]Mel or Dom: [00:16:45] so it’s almost like an asset register for any of these items that gets set up in community. So then at least people know that they’re there. And as you were saying, even if companies. Yeah, the installed them initially may not be around at least that there’s someone who knows that they exist so we can keep a track of them and, and go out there and make sure that they’re maintained and useful.
[00:17:03] Ruby: [00:17:03] Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Because drawings get lost. Those companies disappear. the people in the communities move on, so we need something that’s going to stay there. I’m working in communities now where there’s no documentation. So, it puts me back to ground zero, trying to figure out what’s in these communities and when it needed to be maintained.
[00:17:23] And if it’s at the end of its life or not,
[00:17:25] Mel or Dom: [00:17:25] And there was something else that you touched on earlier, that the separate projects, I found that quite interesting in that perhaps it’s a case of, like, a solution rolls into town and doesn’t take in consideration of the existing level of technology. So they might already have something in town and they go, Oh, I forget that.
[00:17:42] And just. Install. So is there that also another component is to do your research on where you are first to understand what’s already there and, and not make the solution a standard solution just to make the solution based on what’s already there, something along those lines, perhaps
[00:18:00]Ruby: [00:18:00] Yeah, possibly. So I am, I’m looking at that. How do we get the most. Out of supply chains and, and maintenance crews by trying to install similar types of equipment. That’s definitely something that could be beneficial.
[00:18:14]Mel or Dom: [00:18:14] So what are your thoughts on the future of engineering?
[00:18:17]Ruby: [00:18:17] So I think, in a mundane sense, there’s always going to be jobs in engineering. I don’t think engineers are going anywhere. So it’s a, it’s a pretty safe bet to get into engineering, I think. but as a more exciting outlook on engineering, I think there’s a number of things that I’m pretty excited about.
[00:18:33] So one would be the digital transformation. How much more data is going to affect what we do and really enhance what we do. collaboration with other sectors. I see just more and more collaboration of engineers with other industries, which is really awesome. seeing a lot of engineering entrepreneurs pop up as well.
[00:18:54] So you know, this type of thing, podcasts and, yeah, just engineers establishing companies, which is really cool. and the last one, last one I would say is, women in engineering – I think that we’re going to make a really profound change to the way that engineering is going. And, I’m just so excited to wait and see what happens with that. More engineering, more female managers, more female bosses, more female company owners.
[00:19:20]it’s yeah, it’s going to be a great thing.
[00:19:24] Mel or Dom: [00:19:24] I thought to me, you’ve just, I feel like you’ve touched on a lot of exciting points there about the future, like, you know, the innovation, the shift in the diversity of it, all that sort of stuff. It’s just, yeah, it’s a very exciting space to be in at the moment, engineering. So what would you say to people just starting out in engineering?
[00:19:45] Ruby: [00:19:45] I would probably say to follow your passion because, really, you’ll be unhappy until you do. That’s what I think. I was. .. felt a little bit caged when I was working in the commercial sector and I wasn’t doing what I, I really thought I was supposed to be doing. And it took me just years of being just slightly unhappy until I finally said, that’s enough.
[00:20:11] Like, I know this is not what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be doing something else. And so now I am doing that thing and, it feels a lot better, but perhaps I should have listened to myself a little bit earlier, listened to my heart and switched over. and then the other thing I would say is don’t give up your identity.
[00:20:28] It’s really easy to kind of get lost, in a big company and for a little bit of your identity to kind of get taken away and, and you get this new thing, which is just a label that says you’re an engineer and it’s a little bit like being a robot, but, yeah, don’t, don’t lose yourself. you can still be yourself and be an engineer.
[00:20:48] Mel or Dom: [00:20:48] absolutely. And I think the engineering industry is so diverse, there’s so many elements to engineering that, as you said, if you’d take a little bit of your first advice, which is follow your passion and, and the second bit of advice is be true to yourself. somewhere in there, you can still be an engineer and find your true path and find happiness.
[00:21:09] no, I liked the connection there between those two words of advice. Yeah. I definitely agree. In regards to you basically need to put yourself forward. I think all the engineers need to do that because we spend all of our lives working in teams. So it’s almost as though none of us want to take the glory, but.
[00:21:25] You don’t need to be so modest that you’re not actually telling everyone and promoting yourself in regards to the good work that you’re doing. I think that’s something that we need to do a lot more in our industry so that people understand the wonderful things that engineers are doing out there every day.
[00:21:41]So just to finish up on Engineering Heroes, what’s a piece of engineering that impresses you?
[00:21:46]Ruby: [00:21:46] When I started to think about that question, I realized that everything impresses me apparently. So right down to the simple things, but, I think for me the biggest one is computers because I have no idea how you build a computer without a computer. I don’t know how this happened. It was, it must’ve been like a spontaneous combustion of a computer.
[00:22:17] Mel or Dom: [00:22:17] It’s like the big bang theory of computers.
[00:22:20] It was just there one day sitting on the desk, like it’s a mystery. It’s it is, it is a mystery. When you think about it it’s.. I’ve done a bit of research, just a smidge of research into the history of computers. And it’s like, Holy mackerel, that’s a big jump in a very short amount of time.
[00:22:37] Like within a hundred years, it went from like little a hole punch cards, situation to essentially what sitting on our, our desks at the moment. So, yeah, it’s, it’s a massive evolution and, yeah, it’s fascinating as well. And it really has changed society. It’s a real, engineering item of change.
[00:22:56] We, civilization we used to do and used to be able to achieve without them. And now when you, you thinking, man, we could never have done that without a computer. Like there’s no way in hell I could imagine doing, doing any of these things without having a computer at the ready.
[00:23:11] Whereas, yeah, we’ve, we’ve come up with very long way in a very short period of time.
[00:23:15]just to wrap up, is there an engineer that you admire?
[00:23:19] Ruby: [00:23:19] I think the greatest engineer of all time is nature, but everything
[00:23:25] Mel or Dom: [00:23:25] this is going to be, this is going to be a big call of all time.
[00:23:28] Ruby: [00:23:28] of all time. Of all time, it has to be nature. She created this perfect closed loop systemand, you know, all waste feeds back into something else and is completely useful. And it’s incredibly complex and just perfectly tailored to all manner of different environments across the globe. And I just don’t think that humans can hold a candle to that.
[00:23:54]we can’t seem to figure out how to create anything that just doesn’t have any waste. You know, that has this, this perfect system. So yeah, definitely nature is what we’re always trying to emanate, and we just haven’t got there.
[00:24:06]Mel or Dom: [00:24:06] It’s amazing where if you’ve got enough time. the amount of iterations that nature’s had a chance to go through in order to perfect the systems it’s, it just goes to show a long enough timeline. My projects would be so much better that, but. That’s true. I hadn’t actually thought about that.
[00:24:24] Like the waste as a key component in that, the ultimate circular economy, the ultimate circular economy. Exactly. And, the way every I, everything is used to, or useful to some extent. Yeah. Yeah. That’s that’s deep, man. That’s That’s
[00:24:43] a great one. going to be thinking about that one, but thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:24:49] Thank you for joining us.
[00:24:51] Ruby: [00:24:51] No. Thanks for having me. This is great. This is fun.
I’d like to thank everyone for listening to another great episode of Engineering Heroes as we present the new dawn of engineering challenges for Engineers Australia. your hosts have been Melanie and Dominic De Gioia. You can view this episode show notes or learn more from our podcast by visiting our website, www.EngineeringHeroes.com.au
If you enjoyed today’s show, all we ask you to do is go and tell someone, tell lots of people either in personal or write review, it’s that easy to show your support for engineers everywhere. We look forward to you joining us next week when we bring you another interview with one of our engineering champions.