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From Satellite Launches to Expert Energy Analysis for Earthlings

Q&A With Modeling and Analysis Lead Kate Anderson

June 29, 2021

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's (NREL's) Modeling and Analysis Group is an interdisciplinary team of technical experts who support government and private entities with techno-economic modeling and analysis of energy efficiency, renewable energy, storage, and microgrids. The group is led by Kate Anderson, who also heads the development of NREL's REopt model, software used to evaluate cost-optimal selection and sizing of behind-the-meter energy assets for grid-connected and off-grid energy systems.

Headshot of Kate Anderson.
Kate Anderson leads a technical modeling team within NREL’s Integrated Applications Center.

How did you become interested in renewable energy, and what led you to NREL?

After going through college on an Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship, I started my career in the Air Force launching satellites and was stationed in New Mexico at Kirtland Air Force Base's Space and Missile Systems Center. New Mexico has a long tradition of sustainable building, from adobe and strawbale homes to earthships, and while living there I took several classes on green building and sustainable design. While space will always be interesting to me, I decided there were still a lot of problems to solve on Earth, so I started a master's program in renewable energy. Around the same time, we were looking to move from New Mexico to Colorado in search of new rocks to climb (my husband is an avid rock climber), which led me to NREL. I am so grateful to have found my home here!

Can you talk about your career path at NREL and how the Modeling and Analysis team started and evolved into its current work?

I have spent my career at NREL in the Integrated Applications Center, which considers technical, policy, social, and economic factors to inform partners' energy decisions and accelerate integrated energy solutions. Our partners' questions have evolved over time, from “where is renewable energy cost-effective,” to “how can I achieve net zero,” to “how can I make my site more resilient?” Our modeling has adapted to those changing questions, but my focus has always been on using models to help our partners make those energy decisions, with the goal of increasing clean energy deployment.

Today, the Integrated Applications Center includes about 100 staff, but, when I started in 2008, we were only about 20 people, primarily supporting the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) to provide technical assistance and alternative financing expertise to help federal agencies meet their energy efficiency and renewable energy goals. During the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) years, we grew tremendously, expanding beyond federal agencies to help communities, tribes, state and local governments, international partners, and corporations to develop energy strategies and implement energy projects. That expansion led to more groups, and I was fortunate to get the opportunity to lead the Engineering and Modeling group in 2010 (which continued to grow, eventually splitting into separate Applied Engineering and Modeling & Analysis groups).

How did you start working on the REopt platform?

Andy Walker created Renewable Energy Optimization (REO, the precursor to REopt) in 2007 to help the National Zoo figure out how to get to net zero energy. He saw a need for a model that would simulate the interaction of multiple renewable energy technologies and help sites figure out the mix and sizes of technologies needed to reach ambitious energy goals like net zero at lowest cost. The need for that kind of analysis quickly grew, as many federal agencies and corporations were starting to set renewable energy or sustainability goals and needed help figuring out how to meet them. I started helping Andy with REO assessments when I joined NREL in 2008, and over the past decade we have built a large internal team and many external users around that capability. It's changed a lot along the way, from a spreadsheet tool into a more formal software platform with new capabilities around resilience, flexible building loads, controls, and community-scale optimization. But Andy's original concept is still the foundation—energy systems integration and optimization.

Photo of Kate Anderson with the women of the REopt energy optimization modeling team.
Anderson strikes a pose with the women of the REopt energy optimization modeling team―one of the most gender-diverse modeling teams at NREL. Pictured from left to right: Kate Anderson, Sakshi Mishra, Kathleen Krah, Emma Elgqvist, and Xiang Li. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Can you tell us about REopt Lite and how the tool has evolved over the years?

For a long time, REopt was an internal NREL software, used by NREL analysts to provide analysis for partners. This allowed us to rapidly develop new capabilities, constantly tweaking the tool to address the new questions our partners were asking. This also limited our impact, however, to what our team of 20 could do. The former director of DOE FEMP, Tim Unruh, suggested we should make a publicly available tool, and in 2017 we rolled out the first version of REopt Lite, a free web tool that included the most widely used REopt capabilities: solar photovoltaic (PV) and storage optimization. This was a big achievement for us to turn an expert engineer's model into something we could confidently share with more novice users, and today the model is used by over 50,000 people around the world. Since that initial release, we have gradually transferred more and more REopt capabilities to the REopt Lite web tool, and it now includes PV, wind, combined heat and power, battery storage, hot and cold water storage, absorption chillers, and diesel generators, and we're in the process of adding geothermal heat pump and fuel cell models. It's not really Lite anymore!

What are the greatest challenges and opportunities on the horizon for technical modeling, energy optimization, and energy systems integration?

I think we have a lot of the individual sector modeling figured out, and the new challenges will be around integrating our electricity sector models with transportation, flexible building loads, industry, and agriculture models to get to a 100% clean energy economy. I'm also really interested in how we integrate social science and behavioral factors into our models. We use models to inform implementation paths to meet energy goals, but there are so many decision factors that are not captured in models. Many of our models are based on the idea that people make decisions to minimize cost, but often individuals are more driven by what their neighbors are doing, and businesses by their corporate strategic goals. So, I think a key challenge for modeling is to figure out how to take those less quantifiable factors into account in our analysis, and then present the resulting information in a way that is accessible to a wide audience and enables people to move forward with implementation. This is the focus of my Ph.D. work in the Advanced Energy Systems program at Colorado School of Mines.

How do you think quantifying and valuing energy resilience can help the United States meet ambitious energy and climate change goals?

Resilience is one of those decision factors that is important to many of our partners, but the resilience benefit of renewable energy technologies is not always well understood. When our partners are evaluating renewable energy investment decisions, it's important to understand the full value stack that renewable energy brings, and resilience is part of this stack. Resilience is just one example, and there are a lot of others like jobs, health impacts, and the social cost of carbon. I think quantifying and valuing all of these things will be important to meeting energy and climate change goals because it helps to show the full value renewable energy brings, beyond just energy cost savings.

What are you most looking forward to in the year ahead?

I'm really excited about this administration's focus on equity and clean energy implementation. I think this will be an impactful time in the energy transition because we have the technical capabilities, funding, and political support for large-scale implementation of clean energy technologies, and a focus on implementing them in a way that benefits everyone.

What has the pandemic taught you about work/life balance, and what strategies have you developed for working remotely?

I think we've learned that a lot of our work can be done remotely, and hopefully this will help us both save the planet through less commuting and travel, and recruit and retain the best staff by continuing to offer a lot of flexibility. I also really miss seeing my colleagues in person though, so I'm looking forward to the hybrid future. I hope we can take the best of both worlds when we return this fall!