Q&A with Sheila Hayter: Laying the Foundation for an Interconnected Energy Future

March 30, 2018

NREL Sheila Hayter standing on facility rooftop outside. Sheila Hayter is a group manager with the Integrated Applications Center at NREL and ASHRAE president-elect for the 2018/19 ASHRAE Society Year.

Sheila Hayter is a group manager in the Integrated Applications Center (IAC), leading a team of experts who support international, federal, state, and local entities with the goal of significantly reducing nonrenewable energy consumption though optimized use of energy efficiency strategies and renewable energy technologies. She has led IAC’s partnership development activities and manages work addressing technical challenges to identifying, evaluating, and implementing clean energy solutions. Along with her NREL work, Hayter is the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) president-elect and will serve as president during the 2018/19 ASHRAE Society Year. She has also earned the ASHRAE Distinguished Service Award, ASHRAE Exceptional Service Award, and the ASHRAE Fellow distinction.

We caught up with Hayter this week to discuss where her roles with ASHRAE and NREL intersect and how she sees them working together. The interview has been edited for length. 

As the incoming president of ASHRAE, what do you see as the most urgent energy challenges the buildings industry must tackle?

My ASHRAE platform is about building a new energy future. We are at the front end of a major evolutionary change in how energy systems interact. My platform focuses on getting the buildings industry and ASHRAE members to move beyond only seeing buildings as boxes with systems that buildings professionals make super-efficient. Instead of individual systems—buildings, utilities, the transportation sector, and the industry sector—it’s becoming one system, and buildings are going to play a central role in that new paradigm. Buildings will be where energy is generated, stored, and commandeered, and we will be optimizing energy flow in a different way. So, a big need is establishing protocols to communicate about prioritizing loads, storing versus using energy, and establishing and maintaining system security. While industry professionals are comfortable making buildings perform optimally, when it comes to interacting with other systems, they're saying, “That stuff is not my problem.” But in reality, the industry needs to own its responsibility in being a part of the solution to those other problems.

With that in mind, what will be your No. 1 priority?

I see it as ASHRAE's responsibility to be on the front end on the practitioner's side in saying, “This is a challenge that we as an industry need to face.” We may not have the answers right now, but what ASHRAE can do is cross over into other sectors—the power sector, the big data sector (including cybersecurity) and the transportation sector that’s becoming electrified. We need to step into the room and be part of the conversation to find new strategies for these sectors to interact. My platform is a wake-up call. The message is that it's time to be part of this evolution, because if we don’t, others like big data companies and utilities will say, “This is how it should be—this is how our No. 1 customer [the buildings sector] should be responding to us.” I believe it should be the other way around—the customer should be the one saying, “These are our needs, now market out there, you work with us to meet those needs.” I think NREL is well-positioned to address that challenge, too.

What do you see as NREL’s role in preparing the buildings industry for the new energy future from an ESI perspective?

We are figuring out how to put distributed generation onto a power distribution paradigm we've had in place for a long time. But we also need to embrace the fact that buildings consume 75% of the electrical power consumed in the U.S. So instead of looking at this primarily as a utilities problem, we also need to look at it as a buildings problem. NREL has been a leader in facilitating conversations and finding solutions on the “whole buildings” design concept. We’re known and respected for this expertise, and it’s important that we continue there. But because we are looking at energy systems integration, which is unique to NREL in the national lab system, NREL is also positioned to address the challenges I’ve been describing. Looking at how to control loads and manage them in a way that will be able to impact the electrical system infrastructure’s performance is the beginning. We really are on the front end of figuring out how to address those challenges in real-life situations instead of just on paper. It’s important to build on this experience and further establish ourselves as experts. I think we can do it, because we have the right kinds of experts and the facilities to support them on both the buildings and the utilities side, and our experts in these areas are already working together.

As someone who has built her career on pushing boundaries, what do you see as the next frontier?

Because we no longer need to have a centralized hub for producing our energy, I think we are going to see a shift. Buildings will become central to where energy is generated and stored and buildings will be where decisions are made about how energy is shared between buildings and with other sectors. I just don’t see how it’s going to be any other way. The next frontier is interconnectivity between energy systems. That system could be an energy producer or an energy user, or it could be both. If the buildings sector embraces the role it can play in this evolution, then interconnectedness will drive the transformational changes we will experience in the buildings and all interconnected energy sectors.