NREL's International Programs Overcome Travel Restrictions To Provide Global Trainings
While COVID-19 Travel Restrictions Prevent NREL Researchers From Hosting In-Person Trainings, Virtual Solutions Create New Opportunities
Key to the success of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL's) international programs is the ability to collaborate with and build capacity within energy sector institutions throughout the world. Therefore, NREL researchers often traveled to places like Thailand, India, or Colombia to meet with partners and host in-person workshops focused on cutting-edge practices and techniques.
Most travel for in-person meetings came to an abrupt halt when strict lockdown measures were enacted due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple tasks under the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-NREL Partnership were impacted by the travel restrictions, so the USAID-NREL team quickly pivoted to ensure they could continue providing exceptional support to USAID partner countries all over the world.
Since that time, the USAID-NREL team has converted several high-impact capacity-building programs into virtual formats, with over 120 total participants across more than 30 institutions trained—all while maintaining personal connection and technical quality from thousands of miles away.
Colombian Energy Workforce Training Pilots Virtual Learning
The USAID-NREL team first piloted a virtual solution through a USAID-funded training series meant to enable Colombia's energy sector workforce to integrate growing volumes of variable renewable energy. The program's April 2020 launch was pushed back to allow time to adapt its curriculum for remote delivery.
"The overarching objectives did not change with the move online," said Alison Holm, the program's lead coordinator. "The priority remained high-quality capacity building and fostering relationships among participants, subject matter experts, and program staff. But we had to consider things like attention span and the way participants would engage with the material. They could now pause presentations, do additional research, relisten or rewatch a certain segment, and interact in a completely different way than they do in person."
The team ultimately selected a flexible online learning management provider to host content. Experts from NREL then produced nearly 40 technical presentations, and NREL's communications team provided multimedia, editing, and design support prior to release. Finally, all content was translated into Spanish and made accessible for a variety of devices so language, internet connection, and technology would not be barriers to participation. The program launched in May 2020 and has resulted in ongoing technical assistance with Colombian partners.
Advanced Energy Partnership for Asia Broadens Virtual Offerings
The Advanced Energy Partnership for Asia, a regional program between NREL and USAID's Regional Development Mission for Asia, applied lessons learned from the Colombia program to training opportunities that were otherwise on hold due to travel restrictions. Originally, NREL researchers planned to visit Southeast Asia for several all-day events to train energy stakeholders on demand modeling and forecasting best practices. Instead, these events were converted into a six-week virtual course where new video trainings would be released each week and participants joined biweekly live discussions with the presenters.
"We were grateful we could build on the structure developed for Colombia," said Sika Gadzanku, an NREL Integrated Applications Center researcher and lead coordinator for the demand modeling course. "The most rewarding piece was hearing the varied electricity demand modeling priorities from the different countries. This gave our team invaluable insight into how USAID and NREL projects can be designed to support specific country needs."
Most recently, the Advanced Energy Partnership for Asia replicated the virtual format for a course sharing best practices on the fundamentals of electric vehicle deployment. Upon its conclusion in June 2021, participants noted how the trainings would directly impact electric vehicle planning within their organizations.
“The learnings and inputs gained from this course will inform the policy work we are doing for electric vehicle deployment under the country's public utility vehicles modernization program. With the best practices and technical knowledge imparted to us, this could be material used in pushing for bolder policies, regulations, and programs on electric vehicle adoption and/or deployment," said Sha Enales, a participant from the Philippines Department of Transportation.
Remote Format Creates More Equitable Training Experiences
With each successive program that implements the virtual format, the USAID-NREL team gathers new lessons about how to make the courses more engaging and how to execute them more efficiently. While the USAID-NREL team may be eager to begin traveling and see international partners face-to-face, this new capability opened the door to offering much more flexible and equitable training opportunities. Now, a wider pool of presenters from across the U.S. Department of Energy laboratories can offer expertise, participants can interact with content and experts in a manner that fits their schedules, and recordings can be shared online for anyone to access.
Watch the Advanced Energy Partnership for Asia courses on NREL's Learning Channel:
Enhanced Load Modeling and Demand Forecasting for Southeast Asia
Electric Vehicle Deployment Fundamentals for Southeast Asia
"This year opened our eyes to what is possible virtually, and it seems the format is here to stay to a certain extent," said Alex Aznar, the USAID-NREL Partnership portfolio manager. "While we hope to see our colleagues and collaborators in person soon, we can now reach more participants than we'd ever normally be able to. This brings along the added benefit of increasing participation among junior staff and women."
Nathan Lee, technical lead for the Advanced Energy Partnership for Asia, also remarked on how the virtual trainings may evolve into the future.
"Following great feedback from partners and facing continued travel restrictions, we plan to leverage these new virtual capabilities to provide capacity building to partners across Southeast Asia and beyond in emerging advanced energy technology areas such as energy storage, circular economy, and cybersecurity, among others," Lee said.
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