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.”
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.
Despite the uphill battle the country is facing, Dr. Schlaerth feels optimistic about the future possibilities of industrial decarbonization.
“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.”
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