Dr. Omer Onar, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Moving the Needle on Wireless Power Transfer

The Office of Technology Transfers is holding a series of webinars on cutting-edge technologies being developed at the DOE National Labs – and the transformative applications they could have globally for clean energy. We sat down with the people behind these technologies – the experts who make that progress possible. These interviews highlight why a strong energy workforce is so important, from the lab into commercial markets. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE. Be sure to attend DOE’s next National Lab Discovery Series webinar on wireless power transfer technology on Tuesday, April 30.

Dr. Omer Onar was always interested in solving mechanical problems. From his initial engineering degrees in Turkey to his selection as a Weinberg Fellow at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dr. Onar has been pushing forward the field of power electronics and electromagnetics for almost two decades. His work today may enable faster, more secure wireless charging for electric vehicle fleets, mobile devices, household appliances, and more.

Beginnings at the Illinois Institute of Technology 

After completing both an undergraduate and graduate degree in electrical engineering in his home country of Turkey, Dr. Onar chose to pursue his PhD at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Although he received offers from multiple prestigious universities, he chose to attend IIT because of its personalized approach to research and study. “They had a young and energetic team who all loved working together. I was basically told that if I went to one of the larger institutions, I wouldn’t see my advisor for the first few years.” 

Because of the standards of the program, its strong pace, and the quality of the professors and advisors, Dr. Onar was able to publish multiple journal articles and receive several citations of his work, all before completing the degree. 

Throughout all of his degrees, Dr. Onar cultivated a lifelong passion for understanding the mechanical side of engineering. “In high school, I wasn’t as much interested in electrical engineering, things like magnetics and optics that are more virtual – I liked the mechanics and being able to touch and see the things I was working on.”

A Weinberg Fellow at Oak Ridge 

Before he even graduated from IIT, Dr. Onar had an offer from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to become a Weinberg Fellow. The Weinberg Fellowship, named after the former director of the Lab, is targeted at exceptional researchers and is only offered to two or three scientists lab-wide. It not only gave Dr. Onar his start at the Lab, but also allowed him to spend 50% of his time pursuing independent research in his first few years – an invaluable experience for any engineer. 

“Since [joining the Lab], I have been so enthusiastic about working here – I’ve never looked at any other opportunities because the Lab offers such a great research environment. We work with academia, industry, and research, so I have the ability to reach out to all flavors of work environments.” 

After 14 years of working at the Lab, Dr. Onar has had the opportunity to work on a number of different projects related to electrical engineering and power systems. His research led him to focus primarily on wireless power transfer technologies and especially the wireless charging of electric vehicles. 

The Power of Wireless Transfer

Dr. Onar’s research has massive implications for a decarbonized world – not just in how we charge electric vehicles, but also in terms of fuel efficiency, health and safety, human capital planning, critical minerals, and internet access. He’s been working on developing technologies for wireless power transfer – more simply, tech that would allow for wireless charging of electronics. 

More advanced wireless power transfer will open up what’s possible for entire industries. It will allow individual consumers to charge their electric vehicles through the surface they drive or park on, without plugging it in – which is a great convenience. But more importantly, the tech could be used to improve employee safety. Drivers for companies with large vehicle fleets are contracted for just that – driving. When companies use electric fleets, it requires an entire additional set of infrastructure for charging that those drivers are not qualified to use safely. This requires additional employees whose sole responsibility is to unplug and plug in vehicles at the beginning and end of the day. Wireless charging automates the whole process and reduces costs while retaining productive and safe jobs. 

Wireless charging will also allow for more efficient charging overall. A common concern with electric vehicles is the lack of available charging infrastructure and the long time it takes to fully charge. The technology that Dr. Onar is working on will allow cars to pull off the interstate, into a charging area, charge for 20 minutes without having to plug the vehicle in, and keep driving. This could be extended to commercial heavy-duty vehicles as well – replacing heavy emitting diesel trucks with electric ones and enabling frequent, opportunistic, and ubiquitous wireless charging systems. Wireless charging would allow drivers to load and unload deliveries while continuing to charge, without exposure to harmful pollution. 

The Future of Power Systems

Dr. Onar is shaping the technology horizon as well – working with wide bandgap semiconductors and electric motors that no longer require rare earth minerals in their construction. Using materials other than silicon in semiconductors, like silicon carbide or gallium nitride, could enable more applications for wireless power transfer, such as long distance wireless charging, possibly using one transmitter and multiple receivers on each device. For example, imagine walking into a coffee shop and your phone or laptop begins to charge just like the wireless internet connection. In future, this concept could allow for entire homes with refrigerators, washers and dryers, and entertainment systems that are all powered wirelessly. 

One barrier to expanding the use of electric vehicles is the lack of reliable access to critical and rare earth minerals used in manufacturing magnets in their motors. The U.S. lacks mining and recycling facilities at the price point and scale needed to increase construction. But Dr. Onar’s team has been researching how to design wound rotor synchronous machines that will eliminate the use of those permanent magnets and help shore up domestic energy security. 

“We don’t want to have to rely on another country’s resources in our transportation systems… we’re applying our experience in wireless power transfer systems into the wound rotor synchronous motors, developing and validating enabling technologies to address the challenges in these motors – each one brings us a step closer to commercialization.”

Some of these applications are several years away, but they are a glimpse of what could be possible with the research currently underway in Dr. Onar’s office. 

Strengthening the Engineering Community 

Dr. Onar has had the opportunity to work with exceptional teams over the course of his career thus far – and some of his proudest accomplishments are the recognition they’ve received on a national level. As a grad student  Dr. Onar received two scholarships in addition to his Weinberg Fellowship, and as a Lab employee has received a number of awards for his performance. In 2016, his team received an R&D 100 award – a highly prestigious award recognizing outstanding research and innovation – for their work developing the world’s first 20 – kilowatt wireless charging system for passenger cars. While most systems were designed for 6.6 kW power rating back then, their 20-kW system meant 3 times faster charging with very high efficiency that exceeded 94% – a huge step forward. In addition, his team has received awards from UT-Battelle and the Department of Energy, in addition to several best paper and best presentation awards. 

“The R&D 100 awards are the Oscars of research and innovation – it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to receive one,” he said, with understated pride. Americans should applaud; his work today to improve technologies from our phones to our vehicles will be instrumental to how we live tomorrow. 

In addition to his professional recognition, Dr. Onar is actively supporting the next generation of scientists. He contributes his time to the engineering community, serving as the general chair of the Institutes of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Applied Power Electronics Conference and Exposition (APEC) in 2022 and the general chair of the IEEE Transportation Electrification Conference and Expo (ITEC) in 2017. His continuous dedication to advancing technology and his contributions to the field at large have already had an impact far beyond his individual research, and will continue to for decades to come.

Dr. Rebecca Glaser, Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, Energy Storage (for the People) and Policy Expert

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE. Discover more DOE spotlights here.  

Dr. Rebecca Glaser started her career as an engineer in academia. But her interest in the field’s applications for clean energy drove her to take a chance and join the Department of Energy. Now at the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, Dr. Glaser is paving the way for cutting-edge energy storage and battery technologies to scale up. With experience in research, commercialization, and delivering clean energy directly to communities, Dr. Glaser’s background makes her an exceptional example of a clean energy champion. 

Discovering the Environmental Application of Materials Science

Dr. Glaser grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and was no stranger to the world of public service. Surrounded by an environmentally conscious community, she volunteered throughout high school. She had an early interest in math and science, born of a desire to learn more about the world – but was not sure how to turn it into a career. 

In her first year of college, Dr. Glaser ended up in a seminar series focused on the technology of energy that was full of senior undergraduate and graduate students who were all involved in materials science research. Although it was a new field to her, it combined her interest in chemistry and physics with obvious applications – sparking her love for that work. “I realized that all of the people teaching [the seminar] whose research I found interesting were all in materials science, and most of the energy applications I was looking at were being done through that field.”

But even with a field of study in mind, Dr. Glaser was unsure of where to take her passions. She pursued a PhD to dive deeper into batteries and concentrate on one area of technology. “I knew exactly what technology I wanted to work on, but I didn’t know where I wanted to put those skills, whether it was industry or academia. But I didn’t know government was an option.”

Applying the Research

In grad school, however, she explored roads less traveled. While peers were doing internships at Intel and Tesla, Dr. Glaser applied for a position at Resources for the Future, a policy research and analysis organization. As part of the internship, she gained insight into how her work was connected to real-world issues. 

“We were writing a case study about coal communities that were working through energy transitions – I focused on one in Ohio, where they were losing or about to lose their coal-fired power plant. We were looking at the effectiveness of government intervention.  I was interviewing economic development officials in counties across Ohio about their experiences with federal grants and the communities that benefit from those programs. All in the middle of my very technical battery PhD.”

It was a valuable experience for Dr. Glaser. When she was finishing her PhD and applying for government fellowships, it gave her additional perspectives on how she could use her expertise to make a difference. 

Battery Research and Development at  the DOE

Dr. Glaser started her work in government as a ORISE Fellow in DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) – maybe on the surface an unlikely choice for someone interested in batteries, but not to Dr. Glaser. “You can’t really go forward with solar without energy storage – you can only get to a certain point, and I wanted to be that storage expert for them.” 

She credits the experience with giving her a lot of learning opportunities, acting as a resource for storage issues, working on program development in topics like recycling, siting, and more. “I learned a lot about how government works – all of its intricacies. It gave me a broader appreciation for the issues behind the science and really helped direct me towards what I wanted to do next.” 

Dr. Glaser moved into a position as a Project Officer at the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations last March and then to a position as a Project Manager, focusing full-time on her passion for energy storage. “It’s an exciting time to be in DOE – it was really cool to graduate in 2021 and then have legislation passed that created the office I now work in.” As a project manager, she helps steward these new programs, select projects for the office to fund, and support award negotiations. There’s a long road ahead, but she is excited for their potential impact. 

OCED handles a wide range of burgeoning clean energy technologies – and Dr. Glaser feels privileged to be on the cutting edge of what’s possible in energy storage. “Energy storage is so diverse and interesting – I’m excited to see how the different technologies play out and interact with each other, and what I’m able to learn about them.” The office has a hefty mandate, but its ability to respond to support the energy storage needs of the present as well as the decades to come will make a huge difference in achieving a net-zero future.

Stiff Competition to Apply Skills that Make Impactful Contributions

But an office is only as good as the staff that run it. Too often, the world-class talent that keeps the mission going are not recognized for their high-level expertise. Dr. Glaser emphasized that getting to support this vital work is because of years of hard work on her part – and that’s one of her biggest accomplishments. 

“The transition I was able to make [into government] is a really hard thing to do It’s giving up the expected path – to go into industry, into a lab, or into a postdoc.”

It’s important to note that SETO, the office Dr. Glaser did her fellowship in has a competitive application pool. She credits her success making the transition to the work she put in conducting informational interviews, taking on work like her internship at Resources for the Future, attending conferences – what she calls the “slow systematic work of understanding this new path and how to get yourself there.”

DOE employees like Dr. Glaser put in that effort because they know the potential for impact is so great. “I am doing the most I can be doing with my job, with the skill set I have. This is the most impactful thing I can do with my skills.”

Dr. Shawn Chen, Office of Science, Practical Science for the Future of Clean Energy

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

With a PhD in materials science, a postdoc position at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and a stint as a AAAS Fellow, Dr. Shawn Chen has had a range of roles in the research community. Now at DOE as a career civil service member, he seeks to combine his technical skills with his passion for public service – to build the foundation for the next generation of clean energy technologies. 

Marrying Public Service and Science

Chen’s interest in engineering and materials science started while he was getting his undergraduate degree at UC San Diego. He was chosen to join Dr. Shirley Meng’s research team and started studying how to build stronger, better, and longer lasting batteries. This experience encouraged him to pursue a PhD, and he went on to study how to produce polymer films and materials – and figure out how to make films that use less energy.

It’s important to him that all his research connects back to energy in some way. Dr. Chen grew up in countries where energy was front of mind for his communities. “I grew up in Taiwan and spent two years in Malawi, and you really understand how important energy is. In Taiwan there was a special focus on conserving energy as much as possible. In Malawi, there would be days you wouldn’t have power. Growing up, that was something that was always on the mind.”

But it wasn’t just science that sparked his interest. With family members who had served in the military and a college degree that was funded in part by grants, Dr. Chen has always felt pulled to give back. “I wouldn’t have my education if it weren’t for the support of the country. What better way to do something to pay it back than to join public service?” As a grad student at Northwestern, Dr. Chen balanced his degree work with service in the graduate student government, negotiating on behalf of graduate student workers for better healthcare and working conditions.

Federal Service

With that outlook, the federal government seemed like a natural fit for him. After finishing his PhD, Dr. Chen took a postdoctoral position at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, where he continued his work on polymer films. His first foray into federal service allowed him to conduct research key to energy issues: studying how polymeric films could be used as membranes for fuel cells – for batteries and other energy technology, as well as for water treatment.  

Looking for even more of a policy focus in his work, Dr. Chen applied to the AAAS Fellowship, during which he interviewed at several different agencies. But the office that most spoke to him was the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. “What really resonated with me was this mission to keep America at the forefront of science and discovery and innovation…the fundamentals of science.” He got the fellowship, and recently converted to a permanent employee. Now he helps forward that same mission by overseeing and executing the office’s research funding and supporting fellow scientists in making progress on new technologies. 

He credits the AAAS Fellowship for giving him the opportunity. “It opened a door for me…without the fellowship, it would be very challenging for someone early in my career to be where I am now. I got a front row seat to how [policy] works behind the scenes.”  

The importance of research and development to fighting climate change is under-appreciated, in Dr. Chen’s opinion. “It’s very important to have that foundation. If we don’t have the scientific know-how, how can we innovate? You can’t just be throwing darts at a wall and hope it sticks.”

Because of that, effective and responsible stewardship of DOE’s research funding is one of the Office of Basic Energy Sciences’s core mandates. Dr. Chen plays a key role: reading applications, assigning reviewers, and making sure that projects align with national clean energy goals. Many of these projects “really address some of the climate challenges that we’re facing,” Dr. Chen says. Overseeing these projects and awards is his proudest accomplishment so far. His office played a major role in funding 29 projects with 264 million dollars that study large scale energy storage centers – directly supporting the Long Duration Storage Earth Shot. “The applications were top notch, the reviewers were excellent – and I think these awards will really make a significant change in the decades to come. I’m proud to say I’m a part of that effort.” 

Building a Stronger Science Talent Pipeline 

It’s not just funding the research – Dr. Chen is helping to bring younger scientists into the fold. DOE’s RENEW program – or Reaching a New Energy Workforce focuses on providing funding opportunities to minority serving institutions and non-R1 research institutions, places that have historically been unrepresented in the Office of Science portfolios. The program’s focus is on training and mentorship. DOE staff spend weeks with participants to engage them and expose them to the research process at the agency. They can create pathways into careers – not only in federal service, but into basic science research.

“Creating that opportunity for people that might not have even heard about clean energy, engineering, or STEM fields is really important. It’s an important piece of building the next generation – not just the technologies, but the people that will do this research.” 

Science in the Community

Dr. Chen sees his role as a public servant as going beyond just his day job. He feels a responsibility, not only to serve, support the development of new technologies, and forward key scientific research – but to engage his community in conversation about the importance of DOE’s work. 

“A lot of the people I interact with [outside of my work] don’t have a lot of interactions with government employees or scientists. Just putting a face to the names that they hear can help change their view of those people and educate them – tell them that we’re passionate about climate and energy. It’s important to meet people, make a friend, and talk about these things.”

There can be a lot of misunderstandings and questions about clean energy projects and what their impacts will be on communities. Dr. Chen believes it’s necessary for long-term buy-in, to keep strengthening our science communication and outreach efforts. 

In both his personal and professional lives, Dr. Chen continues to be inspired to give back and make the world a better place for those that come after him. “I think it’s important to fight for the people in the next generation. If we can make it better for the people that come after us, then we’ve had some positive impact.”

Dr. Hannah Schlaerth, Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, Clearing the Air with the Clean Energy Corps

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

Dr. Hannah Schlaerth’s passion for applied research on climate change was sparked in university, and after completing a PhD in environmental engineering, she joined the DOE’s Clean Energy Corps. Now Dr. Schlaerth, as a lifecycle emissions analyst for the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, helps assess the air quality impacts of new clean energy technologies – directly forwarding the mission of industrial decarbonization across the country. 

Intro to Environmental Science

Dr. Schalerth’s climate journey started during her undergraduate studies. As a geology major, a research project on how climate change has impacted water quality in the U.S. Virgin Islands sparked her interest in environmental science. “Because of climate change, the water quality has really deteriorated, and it’s affected coral health down there. And I just fell in love with environmental research.” 

During her PhD at the University of Southern California, Dr. Schlaerth was awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to conduct research on urban air pollution and climate change. Her work sought to understand the intersection between aerosol concentration and urban heat islands, and how the two can impact one another. As part of another project, Dr. Schlaerth looked at urban greening and how some mitigation measures aimed at decarbonizing can have an unexpected secondary effect: an increase in organic emissions.

“Even as we’re decarbonizing and reducing some of these other precursors to ozone, we can still see some increased ozone from urban greening.” 

These projects have significant policy implications, and Dr. Schlaerth was committed to research that makes a difference. Some of her research was used by the California Air Resources Board to help inform future emissions regulations.

Her interest in air quality and applied research grew – and her graduate work opened more doors. 

Making Waves in the Clean Energy Corps

When the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August 2022, Dr. Schlaerth was “really excited.” After seeing Secretary Granholm speak about the Clean Energy Corps at the American Geophysical Union, it inspired her to apply to the Department of Energy. She joined the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations – a new office with a huge need for smart and skilled people. 

Dr. Schlaerth’s current role is analyzing lifecycle emissions – verifying that the reported emissions from new technologies that the DOE is potentially funding are accurate in practice. This work is vital to the long-term decarbonization strategies of the agency and the government – if new funded technologies don’t deliver on the emissions reductions they promise, that’s money ineffectively spent by DOE and in turn the taxpayers. Making the right decision about which ones to fund is good stewardship and smart science. 

Part of what she loves about her work is being able to see the impact she’s making – especially as someone who pursued research with real-world impacts. “When you’re in academia, you kind of get this message that the only way you can make any kind of change is by doing more research. Since I’ve started this job, I feel like I’m making more of an impact than my research did – and more directly. It has been awesome.”

For Dr. Schlaerth, the work is close to home as well. Ohio’s industrial history means that despite the lack of more visible climate threats like natural disasters or extreme heat, air quality in Ohioan cities is a serious issue. “So many of these decarbonization technologies are going to have air quality benefits in communities exactly like the one I live in. [This work] is on the precipice of some really awesome benefits.” Seeing your work at a federal level have national and local impacts at the same time is rare – but one of the benefits of working at DOE at this point in time. 

Now, because of the remote flexibility that DOE offers, Dr. Schlaerth has been able to relocate back to her home state. She finds there’s an increased interest in clean energy and decarbonization in her community now. When people ask about her job, they’re excited about the possibilities: 

“Coming back, I’ve noticed that even in the past five years people are a lot more invested in their local energy issues as well as these big bills. My Uber drivers are so interested in energy infrastructure and the grants they can get for electric vehicles.” 

But there is also hesitation. “I live in an industrial area – we still have some steel manufacturing near my apartment. There’s a misunderstanding about clean energy jobs and the huge economic impact some of these projects are going to have in regions like this.” Allowing federal employees to live where they work can not only help retain staff long-term, but can foster stronger connections and trust between the government, its initiatives, and the communities it serves. 

Despite the uphill battle the country is facing, Dr. Schlaerth feels optimistic about the future possibilities of industrial decarbonization – and especially being able to electrify some of the facilities she grew up alongside. “Electrification is a double-edged sword – it has to come from somewhere. But in the areas I’ve lived, you have huge community and indoor air quality benefits that I think are definitely worth any potential electricity tradeoff.”

Being a part of federal projects like those at OCED has given Dr. Schlaerth a more national perspective on clean energy development. “It’s really seeming like deployment is nationwide. It’s exciting to see that some communities, especially the more rural ones I grew up around, will experience the benefits of it – either through clean energy jobs or better air quality.”

On an individual level in her everyday life, and on a national scale through her work with OCED, Dr. Schlaerth will continue to make a difference in cleaning the air and decarbonizing the country.

Stephanie Bostwick, Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, Training the Next Generation of Clean Energy Experts

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the U.S. Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

An aerospace engineer and educator by trade, Stephanie Bostwick has spent her career building connections between clean energy, the communities that need it, and the future clean energy experts of the world. Now at the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, she supports Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) as they develop the future workforce and  build out clean energy projects.

Teaching Clean Energy

After years of working in the aerospace industry, Stephanie switched over to teaching – first at Lake Washington Institute of Technology and later at Northwest Indian College. At these community colleges, Stephanie helped build engineering curricula that focused explicitly on clean energy – introducing solar and other technologies to “try and get students moving in a direction that would support the future that this country is moving in.” “Now that we’re focused on [clean energy], we’re trying to train people and encourage them to go down that path so they could do something that supports their communities.”

The transition made sense for other reasons too. Stephanie is a member of Blackfeet Nation and continues to work with Tribal communities like the Lummi Nation. She saw communities around her moving towards clean energy. Her students were more interested in jobs where they would not only make a good living, but make a difference in their communities as well. At the time, the Lummi Nation was exploring solar energy projects and looking to build up a solar workforce. Having educational resources that aligned with these needs helped prepare students for a changing world. 

The National Renewable Energy Lab and DOE 

As Stephanie grew these programs as a faculty member, she also participated in several fellowships that strengthened her subject matter expertise in clean energy: solar power systems, microgrids, and more. These opportunities gave her the tools and knowledge to champion clean energy at her institutions and in her community. “It’s been exciting to learn a whole new field and be able to explain it to folks at a level that helps them engage with it as well.”

One of these fellowships, the Visiting Faculty Program, brought her to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where after the fellowship she stayed permanently to support Tribes with technical assistance on clean energy projects.

Now on detail to the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, she supports TCUs. “My role involves doing outreach to all the TCUs, letting them know that we have funding, and then figuring out what technical assistance they might need and connecting them with our engineers.” In addition, she provides support with curriculum development for clean energy programs, as well as for energy resilient infrastructure on physical campuses. 

The Tribal communities she works with face many barriers to a renewable energy transition. “One of the larger issues is transmission and distribution lines that aren’t suitable for adding a significant amount of renewable energy to. [Tribes] need transmission infrastructure – we need to back up and figure out this issue.” There’s also some hesitation about clean energy solutions that might not work in more rural areas with extreme weather – heavy snowpack in the winter, and very hot summers. There are concerns about how useful electric vehicles could be in areas where the closest hospital is hours away, for example. 

But despite these concerns, Stephanie says, there’s a lot of interest in and enthusiasm for renewable energy solutions. That’s part of why she loves her job: “The awesome thing is that folks are really interested in a conversion to clean energy and what they can do to support the Tribe. It’s really fun to go out there and see that people want to move in that direction.” 

One of the most rewarding parts of her role so far has been to see progress on her old projects. When she was a faculty member at Northwest Indian College, the Lummi Nation was focused on conducting solar microgrid feasibility studies and starting to look for people to fill out a local solar workforce. In her current role, she has been able to support the Lummi Nation and the TCUs she works with in applying for and receiving funding for building out those microgrids. In just a few years, what seemed like an uphill battle is already underway to becoming a reality. 

“While it’s felt slow, it’s only been a few years and it’s been really exciting to watch how we have been able to incorporate the training and make these big things happen that seemed so distant back when we received our first grant.”

Stephanie wants to look beyond supporting Tribes on specific projects and funding opportunities and help them build capacity long-term. Her office is currently working on initiatives to do just that – in order to hand the reins of energy planning and development over to the communities themselves. “The goal is to make sure that Tribes have that internal knowledge so that in the future, they’re able to do all that on their own and not have to rely on others. Sovereignty implies that, but there are still complications. It’s exciting to move in that direction.”

Ultimately, the goal for many Tribal communities is to be able to generate their own power and distribute it to other communities – to sell the energy they generate. There are still hurdles, but Stephanie’s office helps supply Tribes with tools to get there. 

One of the special things about her position is that she’s able to work and live in the communities she serves – the remote flexibilities of DOE offer more than just personal benefits. “For me, staying in the community that I’m in and integrated into and being able to continue to do my work at the college is really important to me.”

In addition to her role at DOE, Stephanie supports students in more personal ways as well – taking Zoom calls with mentees to offer advice on aerospace careers or just help with their calculus homework. The ability to merge personal and professional pursuits in support of the clean energy transition is gratifying, even if there is still so much more to do.

“It’s exciting to have the resources and knowledge and be able to share that with the TCUs and hopefully get them on the cutting edge. It’s still an uphill battle, but it’s a very worthy battle.”

Dr. Adria Brooks, Grid Deployment Office,
Transmission Champion

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the U.S. Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

Dr. Adria Brooks’ journey to the Department of Energy has been a winding road. From the forests of Western Massachusetts, to the desert mountains of Arizona, to the frosty fields of Wisconsin, she has made a career out of teaching others why they should care about clean energy.

From Felling Trees to Harnessing Sunshine

Dr. Brooks’ pathway to clean energy began as an undergraduate when she took time off from her Bachelors degree to work on a forest trail crew. She spent nine months on a trail crew in Western Massachusetts. “I was trained to be a lumberjack, basically, but for conservation purposes – so felling trees to build bridges or trails and things. I loved that job; it was really fun and helped me connect with the environment.” Interacting with the environment in such a physical, tangible way encouraged her to change her course of study from space sciences to climate change and energy issues. 

Soon after switching her academic focus, she found work at a solar test facility managed by her alma mater, the University of Arizona. Very quickly she got hands-on experience in every facet of solar energy, from installation of modules and inverters to running experiments, collecting data, doing analysis, and writing reports. In addition, she honed her science communication skills by giving tours to visiting audiences – ranging from Girl Scouts to the late Senator John McCain.

Understanding how solar and its supporting power systems worked on the ground illuminated a new lesson for Dr. Brooks: “Solar [was] not the problem – the power grid is the reason we can’t get more clean energy.” With this new understanding, Dr. Brooks pursued both a Master’s and a PhD in electrical engineering, with a certificate in energy analysis and policy.

“I loved the policy piece of it, because it brought together economists and engineers and policy folks,” she says. This cohort of people came from different disciplines into  the energy analysis and policy program at University of Wisconsin. “It was a really cool program; I loved it.”

State Government Service

While pursuing her dissertation Dr. Brooks started working at the Wisconsin Public Service Commission as a transmission engineer. This demanding state government role proved to be a valuable training ground, building on the communication skills she honed in Arizona. As an engineer she worked across two different administrations, explaining electrical transmission systems, their challenges, and how different policies might impact reliability and clean energy goals. The key to effectively engaging her audience? Understanding their specific goals and meeting them where they were.

“The information [on power systems] I was providing was essentially the same. The question became: What lens am I using? Am I focusing on reliability and consumer cost? Am I focusing on decarbonisation? From my view, it didn’t really matter. The solutions wind up being pretty similar, but it was eye-opening for me to learn how to communicate the science to folks that don’t have that background, but who have the ability to make big decisions affecting the power grid. I thoroughly loved that job. And that’s what set me off wanting to do more policy work at the federal level.” 

Joining DOE and the GDO

Setting her sights on the federal government, Dr. Brooks joined the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)in 2020 as a AAAS Science Technology Policy Fellow in the Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office. The position was meant to be research heavy and focused on maximizing taxpayer investments in different investigative projects. But when a new administration came in with a long list of renewable energy goals and a serious focus on transmission, Dr. Brooks found herself reassigned to the Office of Electricity, and later hired into the newly created Grid Deployment Office (GDO).

GDO, which is tasked with investing in critical generation facilities, increasing grid resilience, and improving and expanding transmission and distribution systems to provide reliable, affordable electricity, needed internal folks who understood the science of renewable energy and grid deployment, and who could translate it to cross-cutting program teams and leadership who weren’t mired in the details day-to-day. Dr. Brooks found her groove  by bringing in skills from her days at the solar test facility and the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. “My job became a lot more policy focused, trying to explain the science to stand up new programs related to the transmission and the power grid,” she said.  Dr. Brooks’ communications skills combined with her technical background are hugely important because the science of electrical transmission – and how that impacts what clean energy development can occur and how quickly – is often an incomprehensible thing for people, including policymakers.

Communication remains a crucial part of Dr. Brooks’s role and contribution at DOE.

A big win for Dr. Brooks and GDO was the October 2023 release of the National Transmission Needs Study. This study is a useful planning reference to efficiently and effectively deploy resources to update and expand the nation’s transmission grid infrastructure. Conducted every three years, this most recent study is more expansive in scope than previous versions. “Future policy decisions that the Department makes are going to be based on the findings of this report. It also provides a lot of valuable insight for utilities, developers, and other decision makers across the country, so that’s very big,” Dr. Brooks said. Although modest, she played a major role in planning, analyzing the data for, and rolling out the report.

The journey that brought Dr. Brooks to DOE seems almost preordained, as she is bringing her specific knowledge to bear on the urgent problem of climate change.

“Now I feel more impactful being so close to the policymaking, getting to have one foot in the engineering analysis and one foot in policy development. That is really exciting. I do think a lot of that is a very specific opportunity that matched the specific skill set that I had. I have felt very lucky in that regard, to be seen as an expert around the Department. Lots of different offices will reach out, or policymakers will reach out to try to get clarity on the transmission system, and that is exciting. But I also know that it’s luck that I stepped in at the exact time to make that opportunity for myself.”

Looking Ahead

While the transmission issues she works on can often feel insurmountable, Dr. Brooks feels optimistic about the future.

“I am hopeful about how much transmission we’re going to be able to build over the next 10 to 15 years. The word ‘transmission’ is now a common term; people understand it. A couple of years ago,  I would talk to folks about my job and they would say, ‘I don’t understand what the power grid is.’ Now, more people at least understand what the grid is, and that it is a bottleneck to getting clean energy online. That’s huge.  I think we’re going to make a lot more progress than I had any hope of us making even a couple of years ago.”

More than just the policy implications of her work, Dr. Brooks is impressed by how many young professionals want to join government service to play an active role in fighting climate change. Starting in Tucson, continuing in Wisconsin, and now from her home in Boston, she’s volunteered in a variety of roles unrelated to energy systems and grid work that facilitate climate discussions. “I’ve always found kids to be super eager and curious to learn”, she said, providing even more hope that the work will continue with the support of future generations.

Dr. Olivia Lee, Grid Deployment Office (GDO),
Fighting for Resilient Communities

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the U.S. Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

From the rugged snowbanks of Alaska to the tropical seaside of Hawai’i, Dr. Olivia Lee Mei Ling has sought to improve the access to, and delivery of, energy. To understand her journey to the Department of Energy and her work today, our story begins in Alaska.

Women in Polar Science

After obtaining her PhD in Wildlife and Fisheries Science from Texas A&M University,  Dr. Lee headed north to accept a teaching position at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She spent ten years there, first in the Geophysical Department and later in the International Arctic Research Center. While there she developed future energy scenarios for Alaskans, working with federal, state, tribal and local governments, expert stakeholders and non-governmental organizations. Those conversations were sometimes difficult – bringing together a wide range of perspectives and personalities and asking them to align on a plan – but were vital to the state’s future.

“Building those relationships [between energy stakeholders], and helping those conversations continue to happen was a fantastic opportunity to delve into how policy and science can co-occur.”

While at the university she did a short stint with the National Science Foundation as an IPA [Intergovernmental Personnel Act, a temporary position in the federal government] supporting researchers doing work in the Arctic. There she was involved in interagency programs, with a lot of emphasis on developing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives across agencies. 

During this time Dr. Lee supported growing outreach for a group of scientists, Women in Polar Science. She identified a need for this group after submitting an article to a geophysical journal about the group’s work – which was rejected because it ‘wasn’t of interest to a wide enough audience.’

Dr. Lee said it was “appalling to think that the science community is not interested or doesn’t believe there is enough value in sharing what we’ve learned about the women who face adversity doing research in polar environments. And so I co-founded the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee’s (IARPC) community of interest on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.” The group has grown and since taken off, bringing more scientists together to work on DEI within arctic research.

Dr. Lee’s work in Polar Science led to more social ties within Alaska’s Tribal communities, and a deeper understanding of their unique needs. These experiences showed the value of skills beyond traditional scientific training. Empathy quickly became her guiding principle; as an oil-rich state, it became clear that any energy plan in Alaska needed to address community needs first.  “In some areas, like in Alaska, diesel will have to continue to be a part of the energy mix until they’re able to support something more reliable year-round than renewables can offer right now. We need to push clean energy, but not at the cost of livelihoods and safety of communities.” says Dr. Lee. To non-scientists, this statement might be surprising – isn’t the goal to eliminate all fossil fuels? No, the goal is to support a just transition in every region.

Moving States, Territories and Tribes to Clean Energy As Quickly As Possible at DOE

When the Department of Energy began ramping up hiring through the Clean Energy Corps, Dr. Lee was immediately interested. When she interviewed with the Grid Deployment Office, the office recognized her knowledge and skills were unique and vital to their work, and in particular, her combination of scientific expertise and knowledge of the needs associated with Tribal communities.

“We work with a lot of tribes, and it’s a skill set that not everyone has – to take the time to self-educate on the history of colonization, to respectfully interact with tribes, understand that they are self-governing entities and continue to face a lot of challenges in developing their economies.

At GDO, Dr. Lee supports grid resilience projects. Her team thinks critically about what specific infrastructure investments could help communities be more resilient to impacts from climate change – and what resources or guidance communities need to implement those ideas. “We’re not just reacting to disasters as they happen, but thinking about 10 years, 20 years down the road, where do we need to be? How do we sustain energy access and what partnerships we can help build now to make sure that this is an ongoing process?

She continues: “It’s really exciting to know that you are a part of modernizing the grid in a way that will have tangible benefits in the near term – and in the long term as well, if we’re able to help states and tribes plan how [IRA funds] can shape their sustainability moving forward.”

There are lots of unknowns: what kind of infrastructure exists today, and what kind of  investment is required to hasten transition? What resources specific to that location are available now, and how can productive programs be amplified? The work involves measuring and modeling to ensure waste and harm are minimized, while maximizing positive environmental and economic opportunities across the lifecycle of any energy plan.

“In my particular program, we’re supporting projects that develop good resilience. And there’s a very strong emphasis on going beyond theoretical into implementation. Like: what specific infrastructure investments and projects are going to be done to make the electrical grid more resilient to impacts from climate change?”

Unsurprisingly, this work is more than spreadsheets of numbers. To deploy an energy upgrade so much more must be considered: a region’s history, its present day health, and how the region may evolve based on the impacts of climate change prediction models. How can the department meet communities where they are and at the same time prepare them for a changing environment?

Unexpected Opportunities to Build Grid Resilience

Dr. Lee shares one example of how her team did just that. One of the Alaskan tribes they work with requested funding for a project that seemed outside the bounds of grid resilience. They didn’t ask for wiring, poles or grounding, but for snow removal equipment for their wind facility. 

During a recent snowstorm, the community couldn’t access their wind facilities because they lacked updated snow removal equipment. Without ready access to those facilities, if anything had gone wrong, the grid would have had problems as well. “It’s so important to have energy in Alaska winters – it’s life or death. You can’t just say ‘I’ll put on an extra blanket.’ Responding to a request for something as simple as snow removal equipment is an actual, valid, small step that we can take to support grid resilience.” 

Dr. Lee’s ability to think creatively and understand the needs of remote communities are the skills that make her an exceptional team member. Without that level of understanding, that tribe may not have gotten support for equipment that at first glance, isn’t immediately related to grid resilience.

Advice for Those Seeking Roles in Government Clean Energy Work

Dr. Lee’s achievements underscore the importance of a strong federal workforce. She offered advice for those entering government for the first time: “Find mentors who can help you navigate how the government works, and be open to new opportunities and trying new things.” She adds that being open to learning and finding mentors in different offices and different career stages brings the most opportunities compared to a so-called “straight career path.”

She says another benefit is that the people working clean energy technology in the government are some of the most optimistic people. Her work at GDO – helping modernize and fortify the grid – is vital to the resilience and livelihood of communities across the country.