Alan Dowdell of Wrightspeed: “Actively recycle”

Actively recycle. Understand what your local environmental services recycling center actually recycles and teach your kids how to read recycle codes, clean food containers, and properly sort recycling. Your recycle container should be much bigger than your waste container. Also, ensure you have a battery recycle container and talk to your kids about why and […]

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Actively recycle. Understand what your local environmental services recycling center actually recycles and teach your kids how to read recycle codes, clean food containers, and properly sort recycling. Your recycle container should be much bigger than your waste container. Also, ensure you have a battery recycle container and talk to your kids about why and what’s inside the batteries.


As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alan Dowdell.

Alan Dowdell is an electric transportation expert and is currently vice president of business development at Wrightspeed. Prior to Wrightspeed, Alan led the energy and transportation practice at 19Y Advisors and at ChargePoint he led initiatives on autonomous vehicles and fleets, smart cities, and energy management, among others.


Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

I have always loved technology. When I was about 9 or 10 years old, my scout group toured an electric power generation station. I remember being awestruck by the steam, the massive spinning turbines and all the other things happening in that tower. I asked the guide “What kind of person works here?” They said electrical engineers — and I knew what I wanted to be. Fast forward to 2015, I was in Beijing and as I watched electric taxi after electric taxi pick up passengers at my hotel, it hit me that electrification in transportation was a thing and was happening — and I couldn’t wait to get involved and help. I find it enlightening to pay attention to what’s happening around you, and to be curious and ask questions about what you see.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

I have been lucky to have had a career in telecommunications, a career in life sciences, 10 years in China and now another career in electrification of transportation. My advice would be to find something that interests and inspires you and look for companies that are moving the needle in that industry. It doesn’t matter what you want to do: HR, finance, coding, engineering, business, etc. — you will be happier going to work each day knowing that you are making a difference. Your time is the most precious thing you have to give, so it’s best if you are happy how you spend it.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Transitioning medium and heavy-duty vehicles to zero and low emissions is hugely impactful. Thirty percent of greenhouse gases come from transportation, and these heavier vehicles represent 30% of transportation emissions even though they represent only 4% of the fleet. For every one heavy-duty truck that gets converted, it’s equivalent to converting 30 to 50 passenger vehicles to battery electric. Our role is to design and commercialize the best and most efficient battery electric powertrain technology, for both new vehicles and repowering existing diesel vehicles.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

Changing to an electric vehicle would the first and highest impact decision you can make. Second, ensure your house has a smart thermostat to ensure you are not wasting heat or cooling when you don’t need it. These devices are not expensive and the payback is fast. Finally, buy the most efficient LED lights you can get. Again, the payback is fast. Of course we also try to minimize buying plastics, recycle as much as possible, and do simple things like use our own bags when shopping.

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

  1. Kids are sharp and imprint on behaviors they see from their parents, and there are so many inspiring things you can do with your kids. Here are some simple things we have done: Ride bicycles. For getting to school and light errands, we are lucky to live in a place where we can bike vs. always jumping in the car. Side benefit: health!
  2. Technology challenges/makers fairs. I have coached and my older son has participated in the Tech Challenge held by The Tech Interactive of San Jose for the past 5 years. This year’s challenge is to build convertible furniture from cardboard, and the kids are enjoying it as much as they have when building robots or other higher tech devices in the past.
  3. Plant a garden. This is a recent one for us. We’ve had herbs for a long time, but this year we took the big step of plowing up a part of the back yard and created a family event around planting all kinds of vegetables. It’s the first thing the kids check on in the morning when they wake.
  4. Actively recycle. Understand what your local environmental services recycling center actually recycles and teach your kids how to read recycle codes, clean food containers, and properly sort recycling. Your recycle container should be much bigger than your waste container. Also, ensure you have a battery recycle container and talk to your kids about why and what’s inside the batteries.
  5. Smart shopping with kids. Take them to the stores with you and teach them smart alternatives. For example, buying unpackaged vegetables vs. those in plastic. Show them the “local” labels and discuss the smaller carbon footprint vs. fruit flown in from Mexico. When shopping online, teach them to help Amazon group items in one box/delivery vs. multiple packages.

It all sinks in, and I know it works because my kids now love “coaching Dad” on what’s good and bad sustainable behavior.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

No doubt you must have a good underlying business model — businesses that are built on goodwill, government grants or regulations aren’t sustainable. I learned at Chargepoint that it is important to educate customers on the full total cost and full benefits to their business. For example, a store manager might question why spend 100K dollars  on installing EV charging stations that only benefit a small portion of the population. But by diving in deeper, it turns out that those EV drivers disproportionately spend more money vs. non-EV drivers (better demographic), and that they spent up to 3 times longer shopping while charging their car. By looking at the data, store owners can see that this kind of investment has a short payback on hard economics as well as softer positive messaging they send as an environmentally friendly business.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Hardest question yet — there are so many people! It seems to me that it helps to be curious, have a desire to see and experience new things, and be confident in the world. My mom grew up with little means in the South, but was well read, loved to travel, wouldn’t turn down an experience or especially a bite of unfamiliar food. When she wasn’t traveling, she was planning or reading about travel. I got a serious case of wanderlust and curiosity from her — and it has mattered when I have been asked to take on a new project or career, or relocate abroad. She taught me that opportunities are always more than what they seem, and by saying yes more often than not it gets you to new places — mentally and physically!

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That’s easy. Move to a whole food, plant-based diet. I’ve done the research — our bodies did not evolve to eat the quantities of meat and oils that we are consuming on the standard American/western diet. It is both hurting our planet and killing our bodies. For example, heart disease is the number one cause of death in the West and is 100% avoidable by consuming whole food plant-based. Type 2 diabetes, strokes, and obesity as well. It is not the Mediterranean diet we need (way too much oil, fats and marketing) but rather the Okinawan and similar diets (95% plants, small amount of fish and meat). In 50 years, the world will be more plant-based, less meat, and much better off. References: The Blue Zones (Dan Buettner), The China Study (T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II), anything by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn but especially Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

The more you travel, the smaller the world becomes. I would like to say that’s my quote/lesson, but I am sure someone smarter before me said it. Our brains are wired to learn, and we learn by seeing, doing and experiencing. Importantly, it also teaches us to see things from other cultures’ perspectives. It may not be true now that a majority of US congress members don’t have passports, but I do think those in leadership positions would make better decision and take more logically valid positions if they had more worldly experience. Get out there, experience the world, and make your small difference in it!

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/alan-dowdell/

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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