Q&A With Jen Kurtz: All In on Clean Energy and Social Connection

April 27, 2023 | By Mackenzie Reed | Contact media relations

Jen Kurtz stands and points to large data storage system in front of group of professionals out in the field
Jen Kurtz (left) provided a tour of ARIES assets at NREL's Flatirons Campus to Lithuanian delegates. Photo by Werner Slocum, NREL

Jen Kurtz is not only focused on the research side of things at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), but she is also highly in tune with the people side and what it takes to support them.

She believes in bringing your full self to work, in failing as much as you are succeeding, and that connecting with others over shared experiences is just as important as learning how you are different. She strives to be world class in not only energy solutions for the future but also in creating a truly inclusive environment.

In this interview, Kurtz goes into detail on how she found her way to renewable energy, her dual NREL role as center director for the Energy Conversion and Storage Systems Center (ECaSS) and research director of Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES), some exciting new projects on the horizon, and how energy justice and equity are key to the energy transition.

How did you become interested in renewable energy?

I became interested in renewable energy when I was thinking about grad school and the area I wanted to dive into. Energy really hit me as something so critical to our livelihoods; we all use it, and it affects how we live and connect with one another. The primary attraction to renewable energy for me was when I thought about how we embrace the resources that we have, if we are effective stewards, and how we think about the making and the consumption of energy. Energy seemed to not only have unlimited technical opportunity, but I liked the social connection too. It's all encompassing.

How did you progress into your current roles?

I’ve tried several different roles at NREL to see how I can contribute to the team.  

When I was a group manager, my focus was to ask, “What role can I play to support and help others succeed?” When I got my Ph.D., I got to explore my technical interests, which led me into the systems engineering space. My focus became the whole system and how all the technologies work together. Our transition to an energy future that's sustainable, affordable, just, and reliable is not one technology—it is a whole integrated system. This led me to becoming the research director of ARIES. I work with our team at NREL, DOE, and industry partners to build the strategic vision of this unique capability. We were able to build on previous successes at NREL and go big so we can tackle energy transition challenges faster.

I also play the role of center director for ECaSS, where I focus on supporting and advocating for our staff. I have a full plate, but it's exactly what I want to be doing right now.

What is the Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems, and what can it do?

ARIES can answer clean energy transition questions for communities, companies, and energy leaders, from “I don’t know where to start or what steps to take” to “costs and risks are so high I need to know what’s going to happen.” ARIES can find potential issues and solutions before anything is put on the grid. We've got the ability to pull in analysis, modeling, experimental work, visualization, and advanced computing to look at a wide range of potential scenarios.

There is also the demonstration piece of ARIES, where we show the end user how to implement and operate the clean energy technologies being proposed. Just because we come up with a great solution does not ensure that it's actually going to be implemented in the marketplace.

What is an Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems project you are particularly looking forward to or excited about?

This is a hard question because there are so many things I’m excited about with ARIES!

We've got a handful of R&D 100 nominations—one being the Clean Energy to Communities (C2C) ARIES project in Fairbanks, Alaska, where we are helping the utility company there look at how they could change from a coal plant to a wind and battery system in their community. We're not tackling just a technological solution but also the energy justice side of things. We aren’t saying what we think is the best technology but understanding what local communities need for this system, and then how do we help support those goals?

I am also excited about the new hydrogen capabilities at the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) and at the Flatirons Campus.

What made you join the group that started the NREL Women’s Employee Resource Group?

When we have connections with people, we can have conflict and respect and push one another. That is what makes us world class, and we should be world class in everything we do, including an inclusive environment. I listened in on the Women's Network conversation today where they shared their stories, and it was great to hear different perspectives. If you can be open to hearing another’s perspective and come back to a shared experience or the shared intent, that is what helps us get through conflict. It helps us go through challenging budget times or the stress that we've all got. The Women's Network and the other employee resource groups really give us an avenue for that connection and conversation, and it is spectacular to see how it has really grown.

I'm also thrilled about how this group sets up new pathways and new opportunities for people. It is easy to stay in your sandbox, and this and other employee resource groups give you some clear connection points outside of that sandbox.

What advice would you give to an early-career scientist considering a career in STEM? 

How did I get so old that I should be giving advice to anybody else instead of receiving advice?

For me, the work I chose had to be something I could be all in on. One story I tell was when my son was younger. We were at a BBQ, and somebody asked, “What do you do?” I said I'm an engineer at NREL. My son was like, “No, Mommy, you work on hydrogen fuel cell cars and you're trying to save the world.” This showed there wasn't a work me or a home me; it's all just me. This all-in approach helps me when I go through failures or when I don't know what to do.

Failure is just as important as the successes in a research environment if we are trying to lead the way to change the future. We should be failing as much as we're succeeding if we're pushing on the research, if we're pushing ourselves. We are at a place that encourages and rewards learning, so make that a part of what you do and do your best to fail safely.

Something that’s taken me a while to learn is that I don't have to make myself fit into a particular system or conform to stereotypes of what I should or should not be at work. I strive to be authentic in the work I do and in the leadership of my team. I hope others that I interact with everyday see or hear that from me.

Learn more about NREL’s ARIES research platform and the research highlights in the 2022 ARIES Annual Report.

Tags: Energy Security and Resilience,Energy Systems Integration