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Q&A with Sherry Stout: Building Capacity and Collaboration for Energy Resilience

Nov. 18, 2019

Sherry Stout is an engineer in the Integrated Decision Support group who specializes in addressing energy challenges in rural, remote, and developing communities. She contributes to energy resilience projects in countries and regions such as Colombia, Laos, and the Caribbean. We talked with Stout about her work and the importance of coordinated, diverse stakeholder groups in energy planning. This conversation has been edited for length.

Sherry Stout – Researcher – Civil Engineering

Why did you decide to become an engineer?

I was that kid who loved Legos and would take apart everything my mom owned just to put it back together. I love problem-solving and exploring what to make or build to solve weird challenges. There was never one moment where I decided to become an engineer. I just went to college and knew it was what I wanted to do.

How did you land at NREL? 

I was doing development work in Morocco and decided to come to the University of Colorado for the program focused on engineering in the developing world. The last semester of my graduate program, I had an internship here at NREL working on water projects, but I began working on electricity-based projects, too. I learned to love the energy/water nexus and where those two systems intersect. I also fell in love with NREL, its mission, and working with stakeholders on the state, local, national, and tribal level. I've enjoyed translating the value of technical tools to a decision-maker and helping them understand why these high-tech tools matter and what they mean to them. 

From your perspective, why is energy resilience becoming such a prominent topic?

One reason is because the power sector is expanding, and more people have access to energy than ever before. Systems are also more complex than ever before. We have more electronic devices that control our lives—from our phones, to our communications networks, hospitals, or commerce. Everything we do touches energy. As these systems rapidly transform, our energy component must be resilient, or we'll be in trouble.

We are also seeing unprecedented floods and storms. The more we have extreme weather events, the more robust and resilient the power system needs to be—robust to withstand those events and resilient to bounce back from them. People are starting to recognize that. 

Tell me about some of your work on energy resilience projects supported through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-NREL Partnership.

I contribute to a variety of projects with the USAID-NREL Partnership. One resilience project was a year-long engagement with the Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) and their Ministry of Energy and Mines. We looked broadly at their power sector but also zoomed in on their challenges with hydro-electric power generation. We addressed both technological and process solutions because many of their issues came down to a need for coordinated planning. We ended up mostly focusing on improving the lack of coordinated policy to implement resilience actions and determined that a stakeholder engagement process was needed before they could tackle other challenges.

I've also worked with the USAID-NREL Partnership on developing trainings for partner nations, such as when we trained national actors across the Latin American and Caribbean region on how to think about resilience, how to start a resilience process, and how to perform a vulnerability assessment of their power sector. These trainings point to the fact that my job is not to be doing resilience assessments forever. My job is to build capacity within our partner nations. We can get them on their way, fill in technical information where needed, but they are empowered to do their own resilience and vulnerability assessments.

How critical are partnerships and coordination to building successful resilience action plans?

Highly critical. A challenge I often see is when individual government entities, state departments, or cities decide to become resilient but fail to have coordinated a collective action to achieve resilience. They need to engage the right stakeholders. You can't just put up a microgrid or add a battery and call a system "resilient" because resilience is not only a technology solution—it is behavior changes, policy changes, and technology solutions all in play together.

And there is no such thing as being 100% resilient because resilience isn't only coordinated action but also iterative action. As circumstances change, the context of resilience changes. For example, as Laos builds out more hydro-electric generation, they gain new opportunities in the resilience space, but they are also open to new vulnerabilities. They need to continually address changes in their power system to maintain resilience.

The USAID-NREL Partnership recently launched the Resilient Energy Platform. How did the team involved decide this platform needed to be created and invested in?

For several years NREL has developed platforms to help jurisdictions plan resilience. The Resilient Energy Platform builds on that existing work. We realized we had tools and platforms for stakeholders in the United States and the U.S. Department of Defense, but our developing nation partners are as at risk to extreme climate events as developed nations, if not more so. At the same time, their power systems tend to be more fragile. The idea was to tackle that segment of power-sector planners and provide a resource suited to their unique needs and considerations.

What are the projects you worked on in 2019 you are most proud of?

I'm most proud of, and excited about, our rural electrification work in Colombia, which will continue through the coming years. Plans are underway to bring electricity to rural communities in Colombia affected by the armed conflict of the last 40 years and increase their productive use of electricity. Electrification gives villages additional economic opportunities to support the peace process and national stabilization. The goal is to develop programs and projects to help these communities become resilient both in terms of infrastructure and local economics. NREL's work here is sponsored by USAID, and we partner with the U.S. Energy Association, Colombian stakeholders, and USAID's Scaling Up Renewable Energy program. Everyone is focused on the mission, and it is a great team.

What is most exciting about being in the energy resilience space right now?

One of the most compelling changes I've witnessed is the amount of indigenous voices added to the conversation. There is a wealth of traditional ecological knowledge in these communities. Seeing tribes and indigenous people leading conversations and using that traditional ecological knowledge to inform resilience plans is very important.

Also, the inclusion of gender as a planning goal and designing programs that specifically seek to include women. One of the stated goals of our work in Colombia is empowering women, and the PDR project included representatives from the Women’s Union. Like indigenous people, women were often left out of these conversations, but they are now adding their key perspectives to energy planning. In places where the stakeholders are indigenous women, the issue is even more important.

Finally, there are many opportunities for cross-learning. We're working on a South-South exchange between African nations and Latin American nations on lessons learned across the Southern Hemisphere. At the same time, we are taking lessons learned in Alaska—which has operated microgrids for remote community electrification probably longer than anywhere else on Earth—and using those lessons to inform microgrid decisions in South America. The cross-pollination of ideas is amazing.

Read about Stout’s work with tribal communities in this NREL feature article. For more information on how the USAID-NREL Partnership is supporting resilience planning in developing nations, visit the partnership's website or the Resilient Energy Platform website.