My Internship in D.C.
by Xiaomin Chen -- July 25th, 2014
My day starts at 9:30 am when I step out of elevator to floor 11 (my badge only allows me to access lobby and floor 11) at 1500 K Street, N.W., Washington D.C. Four floors including the 11th belong to Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, a law firm with more than 160 years of history. I’ve dreamed of working in a lawyer’s office since I was sophomore. Now my dream has come true — although I work here not as a lawyer but as a summer intern for a biomass co-firing project of the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Earth Partners.
Lessons learned: play early and apply more
I didn’t expect to intern in D.C. either. When my classmates stayed up late editing resumes, preparing for interviews and gathering writing samples, I didn’t do anything. There are lots of internship opportunities sponsored by Stanback Internship Program. Duke also gave us the opportunity to find internships at the Duke-Yale job fair. But after a quick search, I realized none of those opportunities are in Seattle, where my husband lives.
I targeted an environment consultancy first. I reached out to alumni, who were very nice and invited me for an informal interview at a restaurant in Raleigh. They introduced me to people in their office in Seattle. I was too confident in my belief that if I focus on just one company I will get the internship. It turned out the company’s office in Seattle doesn’t want to hire an intern due to workload.
I talked to my classmates. Some have similar experiences. For them, everything would be going well. At the last step, they weren’t getting hired due to budget, workload or other reasons.
Soon it was exam period with lots of deadlines. When I had time to think about internship, it was the end of the semester. I went to Seattle right afterward, hoping to network with local professionals as early as possible. Frankly speaking, I got to know lots of smart and nice people in energy and sustainability fields through communicating with them by emails. Responding to my internship inquiry letters, some wrote long, detailed and informative emails, but I didn’t get a job in Seattle because I missed the interview deadline, the internship requires half a year or even longer on-site work or the internship starts too late.
So if someone asks for my advice on internship hunting, I would say to plan first then apply to as many companies as possible, particularly if you want to work in a specific location and if you are international student (many companies don’t hire international students. Some indicate this on their website. Some just don’t). I really loved one position and was very excited when I saw the job description. And I think my experiences and my knowledge make me a perfect match to the job. When I told an alumni I couldn’t understand why I was not given interview opportunity, she said the company doesn’t hire international students.
Past experience matters
Besides other reasons, one classmate got an internship because she has building design experience and the project is green building; another classmate got an internship because she has worked for an organization’s office in another country and she is familiar with how the organization operates. I landed my internship because I used to be a journalist.
When I read the job description, I knew I would be hired. They wanted someone who knows low carbon economy, climate change, China and energy. I have them all. When I spoke with my interviewer, who later became my manager, I could tell she liked my experience. She knew almost all the people I mentioned when I talked about my interviewees in the climate change area.
Employers look for someone who has experience in the project they are doing. So whether it is something you did as a group project while a student or as a full-time employee, tell them and express your interest.
A job that connects past with present
In 11 weeks, we, a team of five, are supposed to generate a white paper with a model and organize a roundtable. The white paper should assess sustainable biomass potential in US and China, analyze opportunities and constraints for both countries to retrofit their existing coal power plants to coal and biomass co-firing units, and finally explore cooperative opportunities between the two countries.
My manager said I am intuitive and know where we are going. That’s because this job was pretty much like what I did as a journalist: editor assigns you a topic, you know nothing about it, you start from googling, you have questions and you ask, the more you ask the more you know, you start writing like an expert!
In this internship I am also using knowledge learned in my modeling class and energy technology class over the past year. Emission rate, unit conversion, heat value, Joules, BTU, abatement cost, installed capacity… All become so real! I also learned lots of other things: you have to consider moisture rate when calculating heat value of biomass, you cannot transport biomass to long distance unless you change it to blocks, briquettes or pellets…
This is a pretty new and niche area at least in US and China. There is only one operating project in China. Very little information available and very few people to ask about. The moment I realized that, I started to place phone calls to my connections in China. If one doesn’t know, he or she introduces me to another, and then another. From each person, you get a small piece of information. When you put them all on page, and in an organized way, you will see a big picture.
There are crazy moments when it is hard to find data and when I was lost in my own calculations. However, when we finally come up with solid analysis, I feel really proud of the job I did this summer.
The following is from our white paper:
Existing coal plants are the single largest sources of emissions in both the U.S. and China – burning coal in China alone contributes one fifth of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions, and coal power comprises one quarter of U.S. national emissions.
This assessment indicates that sustainable biomass, as assessed through a rigorous sustainability framework, has the technical potential to offset 25 and 33 percent of current coal use from the power sector in China and the U.S. respectively, resulting in the reduction of over 1.3 Gigatons of CO2 annually. The CO2 emissions abatement cost of biomass co-firing is found to be, in many instances, one of the most cost-effective mitigation options available to coal power plants “inside the fenceline,” when compared natural gas switching and carbon capture and storage.
 IEA Emissions Statistics 2013, US EPA GHG Inventory 2014