Meet the State, Local, and Tribal Program Team: Kevin McCabe

Oct. 31, 2022 by Kerrin Jeromin

In this blog, meet Kevin McCabe, a clean energy researcher who serves as the lead for NREL's tribal energy activities.

Our "Meet the Team" blog series highlights the staff within NREL's State, Local, and Tribal (SLT) Program

With broad support from the U.S. Department of Energy, NREL's SLT Program supports development of efficient, affordable, and resilient energy systems that address local energy challenges. See more SLT Program activities and blogs on its website.

Talk about your journey to get to NREL. What was your career path and your professional background?

Kevin McCabe
Kevin McCabe is a researcher and mechanical engineer, and is the Tribal Energy lead for NREL's State, Local, and Tribal Program.

I received my bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. I had a few internships particularly working on pipe stress analysis, specifically for oil and gas and downstream refinery infrastructure. I pursued a master's degree in petroleum engineering, which was perfect for what I wanted to do—help tribes develop their oil and gas resources in a responsible, efficient way. Unfortunately, right when I was about to graduate, oil prices tanked, and jobs were difficult to come by throughout the industry. But thankfully I was able to get an internship with NREL's geothermal research team. My engineering skills were a great fit for the position, and that internship sparked my NREL career. I transitioned to a full-time NREL employee a few months later in February 2016 (the week the Broncos won the Super Bowl), and things have gone pretty well from there, I'd say! I've held different positions along the way related to energy analysis, which encompasses modeling, project management, and personnel management.

What does "a day on the job" look like for you as SLT's lead for Tribal Energy? What are the goals of your work, and how does it impact people?

In a general sense, my role as the tribal energy lead is to support and advance the mission of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs. NREL provides programmatic and technical support for the office. The mission of the Office of Indian Energy is to maximize the development and deployment of energy solutions for the benefit of American Indians and Alaska Natives. And thus, the objective of my role is to embody and advance that mission. Support for the Office of Indian Energy manifests itself in many ways, but some of our main activities at NREL include managing a diverse portfolio of technical assistance requests, developing tools and analysis that help tribes and other stakeholders achieve their energy goals, and providing outreach and communications support. My role is thus to manage these activities and ensure that they remain aligned with the mission and, overall, benefit tribal nations and communities.

There are very tangible methods through which our work impacts people—specifically, tribes, tribal communities, Alaska Native villages—such as technical assistance, tools, analyses, and data. Our work and the work of the Office of Indian Energy provides a very real financial impact—that is, through funds/grants that are awarded to tribes to achieve their energy goals. Our team at NREL helps to develop, review, and promote these opportunities so that awardees may achieve anything from powering unelectrified buildings, deploying energy infrastructure on tribal lands, or enhancing their energy security and resilience. All very real ways that our work and the work of the Office of Indian Energy directly impacts people.

What has been your favorite project or research you have contributed to?

I have really enjoyed seeing the Tribal Energy Atlas tool develop since I've been in this role. The atlas is a geospatial application that provides tribes with the data needed to understand their energy options. It really is a first-of-its-kind tool tailored specifically for tribes and tribal communities. This project merges my love for model development, data, and analytics with helping tribes. Development is ongoing for the atlas, with some exciting new data layers and features in the works!

November is Native American Heritage month. As a Native American, how has your background influenced or inspired your professional journey?

I'm an enrolled member of the Navajo Tribe and have roots with the Dakota Sioux and Seneca Tribes, so all things tribal are ingrained within myself and my desire to support my people and Native people as a whole. It just seemed natural to marry that with that with my technical expertise to help tribes develop their resources.

A man smiling on a beach.

Kevin values traveling and experiencing other cultures and strives to help others learn about his own Native American culture, language, and traditions. Photo by Kevin McCabe, NREL

As the NREL subprogram lead supporting DOE's Office of Indian Energy, the role has been a perfect fit that allows me to explore new areas of tribal energy development. NREL's State, Local, and Tribal Program really embodies supporting tribes (and communities in general) as they seek new clean energy goals.

Work at the lab is very cross-disciplinary. I've been grateful for the opportunities to learn and immerse myself in analyses, technologies, tools, and other areas that I might never have been able to experience in a different setting. That type of comprehensive, holistic thinking is what's needed to support tribes, communities, states, and the world in achieving the energy goals we need to leave a better world for our next generations.

Besides my research and technical work, I'm also proud to say that I've helped grow events and resources at the lab to bring more awareness of tribal and indigenous cultures. We've helped bring in speakers to the lab, including some to talk about the Navajo Code Talkers and their role in World War II. It had a great response and kicked off a journey to do more to support our indigenous population at the lab. And I'm excited to share that we're in the process of rolling out a tribal and indigenous Employee Resource Group at NREL.

It is very important for me that I continue to celebrate and recognize my own heritage but also ensure that others are exposed to it as well. There has been some erasure of tribal culture. So if folks don't have some exposure [to the culture], they are not aware that we exist. It's important for me to help make people aware of the culture, language, and traditions and help people recognize that we do exist.

A man with a helmet on standing in front of a motorcycle with a sunset in the background.

Kevin enjoys traveling and riding his motorcycle in his spare time. Photo by Kevin McCabe, NREL

Just for fun: Outside of your work, what else are you interested in? What are your hobbies or fascinations?

I'd like to think I'm an active person. My wife and I are avid travelers. We took our first abroad trip to London a few years back, and the travel bug bit us and we have made it a point to travel internationally (as much as a pandemic allows). We love trying the foods and experiencing new cultures. Otherwise, I love to stay active. I play a sport called hurling (which I think is an impossible sport to explain so I just tell people to Google it). I also like to golf, ride my motorcycle, and work with my hands. I really love starting projects and not finishing them.

Just for fun: If you were not an NREL researcher, what would be your ultimate dream job?

Easy—fighter pilot. I grew up with Top Gun as one of my favorite movies ever and always thought that jets and flying were just the coolest things ever. I recently saw the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, and fell in love all over again. Maybe NREL can partner with the Navy to come up with renewable-powered fighter jets, and they'll let me take a ride in one.