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Marg Kelly’s 35 Years in Review

May 11, 2015 by Sherry Stout

Marg Kelly of NREL's Market Partnerships and Tools group answers eight questions about renewable technology and her work at NREL over the past 35 years.

You just celebrated your 35 year anniversary with NREL. In that time, how many different roles have you had? What were they?

Oh my, that’s quite a list.  I began as a database analyst on the Solar Energy Information Databank.  Then became a programmer/analyst/database administrator, eventually heading up our management information system group, and co-managed the conversion of business systems to Oracle.  I took on the Communications organization and built it to over a $10M/year operation.  The Technical Communications Organization was divided up and I shifted to work on strategic planning, and managing special portfolios of projects–strategic initiatives and what was then called Work for Others.  I helped upgrade our scientific programming function and led the development of the Technical Services Agreements. Then I switched gears and worked on deployment functions.  For the United Nations, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) International, I developed Geospatial Toolkits and taught classes to help people in many counties understand their renewable energy resources and what would make viable projects. I worked on the Wind Powering America project, developing state Wind Working Groups that could address barriers to wind development in states that had a lot of wind resource, but had not yet installed much wind capacity.  I helped develop the Wind for Schools program, which works with State Universities to teach wind and to install small wind systems on school grounds to educate students and familiarize communities with wind technology.  In the last several years, I have worked to build a team of people who can work with the field to address market barriers in a variety of technologies–including biopower and microgrids, but especially, solar and buildings technologies.  It has been a great joy to participate in the Sunshot Program, helping people address the soft costs of Solar PV (photovoltaics), and to participate in special deployment projects such as the Solar Decathlon, the Indian Energy Program, and many others.

How would you describe your current role?

I manage a group of folks who focus on what’s going on in the marketplace.  We work to identify the current barriers to implementing renewables and energy efficiency, and work with people in the field to build the capacity to move past these barriers.  That can be through training, technical assistance, helping people understand best practices, or compiling, analyzing and disseminating information that will make the difference.  The trick is to do this in as unbiased a manner as possible.

What is your favorite thing about managing the MPT group?

I love building and working with a team of people who are smart, capable and care about the problems they are trying to impact.  I love seeing them learn, grow, and blossom over time, and having a role in coaching them along the way. And I love working with the best of each person’s talents to see how we can make a difference through our projects.

What did the renewable energy market look like 35 years ago?

With a few exceptions (such as the space industry), there was no market in the United States for technologies we think of as renewable energy–they were considered an expensive hobby and the realm of dreamers rather than practical people.  People had used wind for water pumping, used anaerobic digesters to process sewage, and built hydroelectric power plants for years, but only large hydroelectric plants were considered viable for producing electricity. All other renewable approaches were seen as too expensive and not capable of producing the amount of bulk electricity that is needed.

What, in your opinion have been the biggest drivers of renewable energy in that time?

Popular support has spurred the distributed market, especially for solar PV.  The markets for central station power have has responded to dropping prices and renewable portfolio standards. The shift began with public support and public policy, but the ongoing momentum is maintained because it is now cost competitive.  It took a public wanting to shift towards renewable energy, along with the development of a lot of data showing that it was possible and the real costs and benefits involved, so that people could understand what the changes would look like.

It seems like there is a lot of momentum behind renewable energy right now. When did you really start to notice that shift in focus for the American energy market?

Things started to change dramatically around the end of the millennium. For example, at the end of 1999, there were under 2,500 megawatts of wind installed in the U.S., and today, there are 66 gigawatts.  Solar has boomed in the last few years, as costs have dropped and new business models have emerged.  The number of renewable energy jobs has grown significantly.  And visionaries–from T. Boone Pickens to Warren Buffet, to Elon Musk have added credibility and innovation to the market.

What challenges do you see for the solar industry in the next 35 years?

I think that biggest barriers to solar energy are no longer technical, but are human challenges.  These range from people in unlike industries (e.g., solar, storage, and utility companies) learning to work together for a joint “win” rather than competing with each other–to major change in institutions that is needed in order for this country  to adapt as rapidly as climate change and a changing global business climate demand.  Will the Unites States be a leader in renewable energy?  Will the Unites States be a leader in minimizing climate change? Only if U.S. policy encourages either or both of these and U.S. business is willing to adapt their business models to the changing world business climate.  I think solar energy as a technology will do fine.  My concern is that the U.S. solar industry might not be a leading player in the change that is to come.

What opportunities do you see for solar in the next 35 years? Any predictions?

Solar combined with cheaper storage is a huge opportunity, especially as electric vehicles become more popular.  I think that concerns about climate change, including carbon caps or taxes, will continue to spur deployment in the marketplace, and the increased deployment will help create and perpetuate the human change needed to make the deployment more efficient.  I think that more intelligent, flexible meters will become prevalent to allow more options for the utilities and the consumers.  I think that inverter technology will improve to provide more robust products, and I think new businesses and business models (such as solar leasing or the location of industries near to strong renewable resources) will change what the marketplace looks like.

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