Buildings Researcher Ensures Energy Models Focus on the People
As a child growing up in suburban Nigeria, Opeoluwa Wonuola Olawale recalls when the portable fan in her room stopped working.
"I remember this incident so vividly. I grew up in a family of six kids. I have two elder brothers, my younger sisters are twins, and a younger brother," she said. "I just thought, 'My brothers are going to fix it.'"
Her father, an artist specializing in sculpture and painting, had other plans.
"My dad always believed everyone should be treated equally and fairly," Olawale said. "Even though I was younger, he said, 'You have the skills to repair that.' He made me sit down, and that was my assignment for summer break."
Her father gave some hints and tips on the wiring, but an assignment is an assignment.
"It took me about four days, but I repaired this fan, and I was so happy. I could do this!" Olawale said. "That was like a turning point for me. I either must submit results or an excuse. That led me on this engineering journey."
The same journey led Olawale across five continents as a budding scientist with a promising future. This summer, she defended her Ph.D. in Advanced Energy Systems at Colorado School of Mines, a unique joint program with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
At NREL, she leads programs researching how people affect the buildings in which they live, visit, work, and how this impacts the electrical grid.
"I am building energy models that can better understand different people groups. That's the most basic way I would explain it," Olawale said. "What we really don't understand so well is people. What makes different people consume peak energy demands?"
If NREL can creatively study the commonly overlooked data on public decisions in this realm, she said, we can better understand their behavior. Along with her team members, she is creating models to see what different demographics demand—high income versus low income, or owner versus renter—to find real solutions.
While her passion today is helping to lower the global carbon footprint, Olawale's career ironically started in petroleum engineering.
"Where I grew up there were lots of rolling blackouts. It still happens today. I did not like that," Olawale said. "Families being able to afford diesel generators was an issue. I wanted to solve all these energy access and affordability problems."
Studying petroleum engineering offered a direct path to energy research. She was a founding member of the Engineers Without Borders in Nigeria. She graduated in 2014 at the top of her school at the University of Ibadan. She earned a prestigious scholarship to attend Imperial College London. There, she began learning more about complex systems modeling to find solutions for carbon emissions in Europe.
"I started getting this bigger picture mindset. It's not just about fossil fuels. It's about a diverse energy mix that can provide affordable clean energy access to all for generations to come," Olawale said.
Helping to build and design integrated energy systems and solar installations for communities led her to pursue sustainable energy.
Looking back, this journey around the world taught her two main lessons. The first: the power of cultural diversity.
"Having these different exposures, I started realizing the power in diversity. If it is managed properly, it is the biggest strength," Olawale said. "It's probably why I'm so passionate about equity, inclusion, and diversity right now. A typical team might come up with two or three ideas. When you bring different perspectives, you get a thousand more ideas. Bringing all these together, we can make much more robust solutions."
Having a global mindset continues to inform her research. The result of her studies, she hopes, will affect leadership and policymakers in other countries.
"The work I've been doing at NREL is helpful for understanding there are gaps in the way we currently design programs that are meant to reduce peak demand and being able to show how current programs impact different groups differently," Olawale said. "Let's use these resources in a way that benefits everyone. Just being able to realize what we have, and being able to use that responsibly, is a way forward to lower carbon profiles."
Pursuing a career in research is another reflection of her personality. If she faced a problem, she brooded on it and dreamed of solutions at night.
"I just know that I don't let things go like others will," Olawale said. "It just follows me. I always want to know more. I guess that's how I ended up on the Ph.D. path. I wanted to be a leader in my field."
Her advice to young girls interested in scientific careers is simple.
"Don't worry, just keep exploring. That's what I would tell my 7-year-old self. Don't be afraid to fail," she said. "Just keep being you."
Talking, communicating, and being creative with people is the true joy driving everything in Olawale's research. Without the lure of science in her life, she might have ended up an artist like her father—perhaps in graphic design—or maybe a driver or a pastor so she could talk to people.
As the end of her Ph.D. journey approaches, Olawale said the past three years at NREL were transformational. This leads to the second most important lesson she learned.
"If you work with the right people, you are unstoppable," she said. "I think it's been a privilege, an honor. It almost brings me to tears because I am so happy. I learned so much. Thank you to Janet, Ben, Dave, and the rest of the buildings team."
Read more about other buildings researchers and their impacts.