Austin Zacharko

Energy Management Engineer at Capital Power

Austin is a Métis man who grew up and is currently living in Edmonton, Alberta. His background includes a master’s degree in engineering as well as experience in consulting, NGO’s, government, and industry. He currently works for Capital Power as an Energy Management Engineer.

He was named to the Corporate Knights 2021 list of “Top 30 Under 30” Sustainability Leaders in Canada.

Austin’s passion for sustainability started in nature. If he’s not volunteering, he’s usually spending time outdoors hiking, snowboarding, rock climbing, or swimming.  

Austin currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship, as well as the Steering Committee for Leading Change Canada. Both organizations aim to help engage youth in sustainability in various ways.

Work and impact

So, I wear many hats in my life. I work for a company called Capital Power. We’re an energy producer, and I deal with everything like coal, natural gas, wind, solar, and possibly other types of energy generation as well. Whether it’s through advocating internally, we’re trying to look for better solutions and integrate sustainability. I’ve tried to have conversations about carbon emissions, but also equity and diversity. 

On the other hand, I volunteer. I think there are some social sides of sustainability that are often forgotten about. That could be as simple as volunteering at the food bank, getting involved in the community like helping in regard to jobs, people, food, and wages. I know a lot of people, when they think of the buzzword of sustainability, they think of climate change, but sustainability is about so much more than just climate change. 

I wear a few other hats. I’m on the Board of Directors for the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship (FES). They fund nonprofits and other organizations like youth-led and indigenous-led groups. I’m also on the Steering Committee for Leading Change Canada, an annual flagship conference to try to bring together sustainability youth from across the country to empower and connect them. 

I would say my biggest driver is nature. Personally, I enjoy spending time in nature, whether that’s going for a hike or going skiing or something like that. Therefore, my biggest motivation is helping to preserve nature.

I think it was through consistent drive and recognizing early on in university that this field is what I wanted, and then identifying opportunities to get exposure to the field. One of the first opportunities was through joining a student group called EcoCar. We built and designed a car that ran on hydrogen, which was really cool. While doing that, I worked with other clubs and organizations and began volunteering more within my community. I also think that as organizations become more present on the internet, it became easier to get involved. For example, I found an organization called Student Energy, which was a really good resource for finding connections and options. Another example is Leading Change. I’m on the steering committee now, but I initially went to their conference and that helped me find my first job in the field after I graduated. In general, I’d say that volunteering, clubs, webinars, consistency with networking, and outreach are how I entered the space once I realized that it was something I was interested in.

I’m super stoked to prove a bunch of people wrong. I think it’s different depending on the jurisdiction, especially in Canada with the way the levels of our government are set up. In Alberta, there’s been a long sentiment of: “No matter what we do, we’re going to need oil & gas. It’s going to be here forever” and I think we might be turning a corner where having an emissions-free energy grid is feasible. It might be a little further away, but it’s possible. 

I think the previous answer could be applied to this question as well. There is a misconception among youth is that it’s easy and quick to make the necessary changes we must make. When someone first gets out of school, it’s like “What’s the issue? Let’s just shut these coal plants down. Let’s put in some wind turbines.” Well, feasibly, it’s probably going to take you like five years to decommission the thing. As I reflect on some of my own thoughts before I got into the industry, I recognize that thing’s do take time because of the scale of some of the infrastructure. It’s inherently a slow-moving process. 

Life and aspirations

So, I work in a control room right now that’s very close to operations. I wake up at 5 to be at work for 7, and we will either work from 7AM to 7PM or vice versa. It’s shiftwork, and you do four days on and four days off. Every once in a while, you can take 12 days off, which is really nice. So you do have a nice work-life balance. In terms of office tasks, we’re monitoring all the units to make sure they’re staying in compliance. The electricity grids have a lot of rules on how much they can generate at certain times depending on the prices they’ve submitted. We also look at all our wind sites for preventative maintenance and planning on the side. For me, the job is 90% real-time. So if something is going crazy, we get calls, and we have to manage the crazy and make sure that everyone’s informed. When things aren’t going too bad, we get to work with our central engineering team or other departments in the company or we work on low-priority projects. That could be things like reviewing drawings, conducting analysis on some data, or so on. That’s a day in the life. 

There’s a lot of challenging things. Shiftwork is challenging. I have a lot more respect for nurses and other operators who work night shifts after doing this job. Another challenging part is working with older people in the company. There’s a bunch of younger people in this role, and then we have a lot of older people in the organization who I am oftentimes butting heads with on specific opinions or perspectives. It’s difficult because they’re your boss or your boss’s boss. I sometimes feel like I can’t say exactly how I feel because I don’t want my name written down in some folder somewhere. However, I try to push back and try to meander through that. Another challenge would be ambiguity. When you show up to work, you never actually know what’s going to happen in the day. There could be no significant events at all, or a unit could trip offline and it could be chaos. So just being able to be flexible is sometimes difficult. 

So, I’m really interested in the ESG space. Things like sustainability reporting are really interesting to me and its growing rapidly. Lots of people think it’s just a bunch of hoo-hah and it’s just for investors to feel better about themselves, which could be true, but I have never worked closely in the industry. For me, diversifying my experience has always been something I’ve tried to do. Even though I have a background in engineering, I’ve had a lot of jobs that are a lot softer (e.g., communications, project management). In the long-term, if I can be the CEO of a company, then why not? If you don’t shoot big, you won’t end up big. I think being a board member of a power organization is a really influential position, so some of my motivation to be a part of the steering committee for Leading Change and my role as a board member on FES is to try to get some of that experience. I think being in those positions of power where you actually get to make decisions would be amazing. 

Advice for the next generations

You can’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. An example would be networking. Say you’re at a public event, and you need to just go up to a stranger and talk to them, or you need to call someone, or even message somebody on LinkedIn. Sometimes you just need to approach someone. It may not be comfortable at first, but eventually, it will provide a lot of opportunities for you. Second, I would tell people to practice public speaking. Whether that’s going to toastmasters or just getting comfortable talking in front of groups of people through toasts at family dinners. Being able to present yourself is so crucial to making yourself heard. If you have an amazing idea, no one’s going to listen if you aren’t able to present it clearly. If you have a different opinion than others (e.g., your Manager) or if you are trying to make a change, if you don’t express your opinion effectively then no one is going to care. Finally, I would recommend people become familiar with ESG reporting. If you can go into a job interview and show your knowledge of frameworks like GRI, SASB, or TCFD, it will set you up well to work in the sustainability space. Sustainability reporting is going to be very big over the next few years and there is a lot of demand for those skills as well. 

As I was mentioning earlier, I really enjoy nature. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I would have done a degree in something like agricultural science. I could have still been really involved in sustainability, but maybe I would have been in a different role where I get to spend time outdoors. However, at the end of the day, my engineering degrees were the best decision that I could make for myself at that time. In High School, I was wondering what I was going to do, and I decided to pursue engineering because I was good at math and science. Once I was heading into my second year of my undergrad, I took the time to think about why I was in engineering and what I could do with it. I learned about this whole climate change thing, and I thought I could use my engineering degree and skills for that. That provided some motivation and so I stuck with it. By the end of my undergrad, I didn’t feel like I had learned enough in the space, and I didn’t have any job offers that stuck out to me. I decided to take a Master’s in sustainability and learn more about something I was interested in. What’s done is done and I can’t change it. The decisions I made at those times were the best I could have made and I’m happy with where I am. I’m happy with my progress. I think it’s important to be hard on yourself and hold yourself accountable, but it’s also important to reflect and give yourself a break sometimes.