Position title: (’20)
Posted March 2021 | Written by Noah Rhodes
Adria Brooks graduated in August of 2020 from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a PhD in Electrical Engineering and a certificate in Energy Analysis and Policy and is already in an exciting career path at the Department of Energy through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program.
Adria didn’t start in policy though. She studied Engineering Physics at the University of Arizona for her undergraduate degree and worked for five years as a research specialist to evaluate the performance of photovoltaic solar panels. While this work was rewarding, she realized that “the photovoltaics are not the reason why we don’t have solar everywhere in Arizona, it has to do with the electric grid. It has to do with the policies.” Looking for a transition towards the electric grid and policy-related work, she applied to pursue a graduate degree in electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in part because of the Energy Analysis and Policy program. “I wanted to [do] a program in power systems, but that also had a policy focus.”
The EAP program was valuable to Adria because of the breadth of people in the program. Discussing energy challenges from a policy background, or a public health background, or an economic background helps to give a broader understanding of why some things get built, but not others. The engineering point of view is just one lens to use when looking at the electric grid and its impacts on people. The conversations and networking with other students helped her build a multidisciplinary understanding of the electric grid.
For the EAP Capstone project, Adria worked with a team to study distributed energy resource integrations across states and create a report for the Organization of MISO States and presented to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. The multidisciplinary team of EAP students collected data from utilities, analyzed regulatory documentation, and mapped the data in GIS tools. Adria’s role of interpreting the energy market rules for distribution energy resources was a new challenge in trying to understand regulatory language. While she knew technical details of engineering models of the grid, the exact models used by system operators aren’t publicly released. Instead, “A lawyer turns these engineering models into legal speak that they think will not get them into trouble, and I had to reverse engineer that. No one would give me an equation, which is what I wanted.” Interpreting these documents and being able to translate the meaning between different domains is one of the many skills that Adria gained from the EAP program.
Adria’s experience in this project led to a significant part of her dissertation. In her analysis, she saw how important it was to price frequency regulation on the grid and used this to inform an energy market model to price the variability of electricity generation and load in the system. Blending an economic analysis into her Electrical Engineering PhD is the type of multidisciplinary work that Adria wanted when she came to UW–Madison for graduate school.
While finishing her dissertation, Adria also worked for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC). The PSC is the agency that regulates the electric grid in the state. As an engineer at the PSC, Adria analyzed technical issues related to transmission planning, energy storage, and distributed energy resources and created reports for the commissioners of the PSC. This required translating the technical issues into policy and regulatory terms, a challenge that she was already familiar with. Again, the ability to work across disciplines is an invaluable skill for working in the energy field.
After graduating from UW–Madison, Adria moved to her current role as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program places scientists from various disciplines into congressional, judicial, or executive branch agency roles to integrate them in the policy-making process. Adria was placed at the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). Within the EERE office, she is in the Office of Strategic Analysis. A significant role of the Department of Energy is to manage various programs and funding for the National Laboratories. For Adria, this means managing several projects across the laboratories and having a high-level view of many projects. She also helps laboratory researchers analyze the projects’ results: “I see the raw results and help to synthesize that and put it in paper form, which is maybe the more fun part of research projects anyway.”
The opportunity to participate in a broad range of research projects and understand where they fit into the enormous amount of research that is published by the National Laboratories is exciting. In her role as a Science & Technology Policy Fellow, Adria helps to connect research groups across labs. “There’s one research group doing this thing at one lab, and there’s someone doing something related [at] a different lab, and I need to be able to bring those two groups together to be like ‘Here’s what you’re each working on. Here’s where I see overlap. Can you all talk about how your research can inform the other?’”
“Meeting students with a different background and communicating with others not from your discipline” was an extremely valuable part of the EAP program for Adria. She shares some advice for current EAP students: “Go to the happy hours, go to seminars, go to after class discussions, and get to know your peers. Take opportunities outside of your silo and to think a little more broadly about the electricity and energy space.”