On the Front Lines of the New Energy Revolution

- Jun 28, 2017-

Bobi Garrett grew up in Missoula and is now one of America’s leaders on the front lines of the 21st century energy revolution.

Garrett, a graduate of Sentinel High School and Montana State University, is the deputy laboratory director and chief operating officer of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a world-renowned research institution within the U.S. Department of Energy based in Golden, Colorado.10JPTESL1-jumbo-v2.jpg

NREL is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year as a driving force in the development of new energy technologies, such as wind and solar. NREL’s work has become increasingly significant in the midst of the new industrial revolution, which is being spurred by dramatic technological advancements and a rapidly evolving energy landscape. Last week China officials announced that the country, which is the world’s largest energy market, would invest $361 billion in renewable power generation by 2020.

Garrett is returning to her home state of Montana this week for the Western Governors’ Association convention in Whitefish, and the Beacon caught up with her before her trip.

Flathead Beacon: As someone who grew up in Missoula and attended Montana State University, how did you become interested in chemical engineering and energy as a whole? What role do you see STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education playing in the success of future generations of Americans?

Bobi Garrett: I loved math and science in high school and had wonderful teachers for both. When I was a senior, I was offered a scholarship by the chemical engineering department at Montana State University. I jumped at the opportunity to learn something new, but I have to admit at the time I didn’t know what chemical engineers did. Unlike the majority of my classmates who took jobs in the petrochemical industry, I started my career at the Hanford Site in Washington State working on nuclear waste management. Through my role I had the opportunity to work with researchers at a national lab, and their research piqued my interest. I eventually joined that laboratory and had the opportunity to work in a number of program areas, but energy was of most interest because of the complexity of the issues and because how we produce and use energy affects everything — our economy, environment, national security, communications and health, to name a few. To me, it is one of the most challenging and intricate issues we face as a country and a planet.

STEM education is extremely important. A technical degree opens doors to a wide variety of career opportunities. Department of Labor statistics show that growth in STEM jobs is about double that of non-STEM jobs and that the national average wage for STEM careers is nearly double that of non-STEM careers.

Beacon: What role do you think western states will play in the nation’s rapidly changing energy landscape?

Garrett: Western states already play a significant role in the evolution of the nation’s energy infrastructure and markets. The vast land area; abundant mix of renewable, traditional and non-traditional resources; and the western values that drive the commitment to environmentally responsible development of resources are all considerable assets. Western resources are providing the vast majority of the nation’s energy supply today.

The western states led the way in the adoption of renewable portfolio standards and many have found these to be drivers of local economic development. Most of the states have defined energy plans that address the local resources, expected energy demand growth and the aspirations of their citizens. While each state differs, these states have come together through the Western Governors’ Association to establish a 10-Year Energy Vision for the West with a shared set of goals and objectives.

The strength of the region’s educational institutions and national laboratories will shape the next-generation workforce, and they will develop and commercialize innovations that will change the energy landscape.

Beacon: In terms of the nation’s evolving energy sector, are there more opportunities for success in the West? What are the great challenges for states like Montana?

Garrett: There are opportunities for the West both in how it serves the energy needs of its own population and as exporters of energy. An NREL study of the technical potential of renewables across the United States (Lopez, July 2012) shows that the Western states have more than 3.5 times the generation potential for solar photovoltaics (PV) than the eastern states. Additionally, the technical potential for wind generation in the West is nearly 2.5 times that of the eastern states.

Montana has a suite of available advanced energy resources to complement its significant coal, natural gas and hydropower resources. The vast plains of Montana provide the country with some of the best potential for wind energy. For rural areas, advanced energy resources can stabilize local energy prices for towns.  Microgrids can use local resources to power communities and provide self-sufficiency in times of disaster. Large-scale advanced energy projects, such as utility wind, can offer local economic benefits in terms of revenue and jobs.

The challenge is to chart a course to future energy systems that are reliable, resilient, secure and that minimize exposure to price swings in the energy market while making the best use of all local natural resources — from fossil fuels to renewables — to create economic benefit. Resource-rich states, like Montana, can be challenged by the need to move electricity from advanced energy generated in sparsely populated resource areas to consumers in more densely populated cities and towns through an aging, sometimes capacity-limited transmission system that faces growing cyber threats.

Beacon: The Department of Energy launched its SunShot Initiative in 2011, aiming to drive down costs of solar electricity. The initiative, spearheaded by NREL, has helped drop the per-kilowatt-hour cost for utility-scale PV solar power from $0.23 to about $0.07. Yet solar power still only provides a fraction of the nation’s electricity. Why do you think that is? What are the biggest hurdles facing the mainstream acceptance of renewable energy sources, such as solar?

Garrett: While solar energy does provide only a fraction of the nation’s net electricity generation today, it is growing rapidly. According to a solar trade industry report, total installed U.S. solar PV capacity is expected to nearly triple over the next five years. Currently, more than 44.7 gigawatts of solar have been installed. That amount of energy is enough to power 8.7 million homes. Historically, cost has been a factor in the acceptance of renewables technologies. The recent cost decreases have been important in helping grow the market; continued cost reductions, driven by continued research and development, are essential.

Beyond cost, a major hurdle is lack of familiarity with how to operate the grid with large amounts of integrated solar. NREL’s research on grid integration of renewables is tackling this barrier using the unique capabilities of the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF). Experiments conducted in ESIF are supported by the DOE Grid Modernization Initiative. This timely and important research is conducted in partnership with utilities and solar system suppliers. Working together with NREL researchers, we’re providing the tools and technologies for grid operators to plan and operate their systems reliably with higher levels of renewables than we thought possible. Using sophisticated modeling tools, availability of better data, and large-scale experiments, NREL has shown that it is possible for the grid to handle very large amounts of renewable energy. This is great news because this March, the Energy Information Administration reported that wind and solar together supplied 10 percent of U.S. electricity production for the first time.

Beacon: Fifteen years from now, what do you think will be the most noticeable change in the U.S. energy landscape for the average American?

Garrett: I think the most noticeable changes for the average American will be an increase in energy choices and a greater ability to actively participate in managing their energy use. Those who choose to will become both producers and consumers of energy rather than just consumers, and they will receive value for what they produce. Transactions with the electricity grid will become seamlessly integrated into our daily lives through home energy management systems that use weather forecasting, in tandem with the utility’s energy price forecast, to manage rooftop solar, smart appliances, and electric vehicle charging. Many homeowners and companies are already producing their own power.

My hope is that in that timeframe, we will have further breakthroughs in advanced energy technologies so that they are even more cost effective for homeowners and communities, while offering local economic development benefits and jobs as communities tap their wind, solar, biomass and geothermal resources and as vehicles and buildings become increasingly energy efficient. It’s hard to know with certainty what the future holds, but I do know that NREL will be there working on advanced energy solutions that will continue to benefit the entire U.S.