Alumni Spotlight – Sarah Gutman, MPA/MSES

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Sarah Gutman, and I am excited to share her insights with you all. Sarah is an MPA/MSES O’Neill alum currently working as an Environmental Affairs and Permitting Manager with RWE Renewables in Chicago, IL. Read below to learn more about RWE and Sarah’s career journey thus far!

  • Can you tell our students a little bit about yourself and the work that you do?

“I am currently a part of the Environmental Affairs and Permitting team at RWE Renewables. Our team focuses on working with our project developers to identify environmental risks, coordinate any required environmental studies, and support acquiring any environmental permits needed for construction/operation. We work closely with project development, engineering, legal, construction, and operations teams to ensure compliance with environmental regulations and permit conditions. I am primarily focused on wind, solar, and battery storage projects located in the Midwest region as well as Alberta, Canada, but my team covers projects located all across the country. I work with a lot of environmental consultants to coordinate studies related to threatened/endangered species, cultural resources, and wetlands/waterbodies and develop permitting strategies for our projects with environmental challenges.”

  • What did your professional journey look like from college to your position today?

“After graduating with my BS in Ecology, I jumped right into the MPA/MSES program at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs to further my knowledge and learn more about environmental career paths. While pursuing my graduate degrees at IU, I spent a summer with the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a biology intern at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina and a summer with The Wetlands Initiative as a restoration technician at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie outside of Chicago, Illinois. After graduating, I was hired as a wetlands specialist at Burns and McDonnell Engineering in Chicago. This role involved completing wetland delineations, endangered species surveys, construction compliance inspections, and pulling together environmental permit applications for electrical transmission lines and substations, pipelines, and renewable energy facilities across the US. I spent about five years with Burns and McDonnell before transitioning to my current position with RWE where I now coordinate with consulting teams to complete tasks similar to the ones I completed at my previous role.”

  • What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow your career path?

“Constructing large-scale renewable facilities requires a high level of environmental due diligence and having done a lot of these kinds of studies and surveys myself has been incredibly helpful. Don’t be afraid to get in the field and get your boots dirty and try something new! The field labs offered through the MSES program at O’Neill are a great way to start!”

  • What skills are most important in your role?

“This is something that I still am always working on, but it’s really important and it can be hard to do! There are a lot of parts of a project that are two-dimensional – reports, engineering designs, maps, permit conditions, environmental regulation requirements, etc. – these all have different impacts on the three-dimensional parts of our projects like where they’re located, how they get constructed, and how they operate. Being able to take the 2D aspects and understand how they impact the 3D aspects is incredibly important. Are there wetlands/waterbodies located in our project area? Can we site our turbine locations outside of these resources? Can construction equipment feasibly get to our turbine locations without impacting these resources (what equipment is required and how much room do they need)? What protections need to be in place to make sure we do this successfully? Are there permit conditions that impact the construction schedule (seasonal restrictions based on prevalence of endangered species habitat)? Do any of our permit conditions conflict with each other (this happens more often than you would think)? These are the types of questions that I work with various teams to answer on a regular basis.”

“The other critical skill is building relationships and communicating effectively – which I know sounds like a no brainer, but hear me out! My relationship-building motto is “I don’t know the answer, but I know who to call” – this means that I pay a lot of attention to what people’s areas of expertise are and I’ve (hopefully!) worked with them in a way that makes them want to pick up when I call to pester them with questions. 😊 Communicating effectively to me means being able to take highly technical information from our environmental reports and work it into our projects in a way that makes sense for everyone, which often means calling someone up to talk it through to make sense of it!”

Check out Sarah’s LinkedIn and connect with her HERE. 

By Elizabeth Gawron
Elizabeth Gawron Assistant Director of Career Services