Scientist Kirsten Orwig
Working at the intersection of renewable energy technologies and meteorology, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) scientist Kirsten Orwig specializes in transmission and grid integration for wind and solar energy. She shared with us how her experiences in storm chasing led her to this position at NREL and why understanding meteorology is important for advancing reliable solar and wind energy.
Q: What prompted you to specialize in a scientific field?
Kirsten Orwig: Growing up I was always fascinated with natural phenomena, particularly earthquakes and the weather. I was intrigued by the way the earth’s physical processes worked and shaped our lives day to day.
Q: At NREL, you work on solar and wind energy transmission and grid integration. What led you to this position?
KO: My background in atmospheric science and wind engineering, as well as my experience with statistics and mesoscale modeling, led me to my current position. Integrating renewable energy onto the bulk electrical grid is a very multi-disciplinary endeavor, requiring collective knowledge in atmospheric science, electric engineering, power systems, economics and others. Wind and solar energy are unlike conventional generators such as coal plants in that they are driven by the weather. This is the aspect that drew me to this field – harnessing the earth’s natural energy for our use and helping utilities manage these energy resources in a reliable and cost effective way.
Q: What projects are you working on right now? What do you hope they will lead to?
KO: I’m currently working on a joint project with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy and industry forecast providers to improve wind power forecasts and evaluate the economic benefits of these improvements for utilities. I am also working on projects analyzing the variability of solar plant production based on size, location and technology, and developing models to simulate that variability.
Q: Do you have advice for students interested in science and engineering?
KO: Follow your passions. Society often paints a negative picture of science, that it’s nerdy or uncool. If you love science, math or engineering don’t let anyone deter you. The potential opportunities in these fields are limitless.
Q: Did you have a teacher or role model who inspired you to become a scientist?
KO: I was pretty well on my way by the time I reached middle school, but I did have several professors that further solidified my interest. Mr. Stein, my geology teacher in high school, absolutely loved what he did and made rocks seem so much more than just rocks. Dr. Schroeder, my grad school advisor, was passionate about getting out in the field and experiencing hurricanes, thunderstorms, and tornados first hand. The field research I participated in under his guidance are experiences I’ll never forget.
Q: Back to wind and solar, can you tell us more about your work in modeling variability?
KO: I am working with a wonderful team of researchers to develop new statistical and mathematical approaches to model wind and solar variability. If you look at a time history of wind or solar energy production, it has inherent characteristics that make it difficult to fully utilize traditional statistical methods and maintain the physical characteristics of the data. Also, the available data is often not at time or spatial scale that’s useful for renewable energy integration studies. So what we’re doing is developing new statistical approaches to replicate the physics of the wind or solar energy at a time and space scale that’s useful for these studies.
Q: How does your background in meteorology play into what you’re doing at NREL?
KO: To understand why wind and solar energy plants can be variable, one must understand the phenomena that drive these systems. For example, understanding how the wind interacts and flows around a complex terrain environment can give you an idea of the amount of wind shear and turbulence that a wind turbine might experience. This shear and turbulence could reduce the turbine’s efficiency in converting the wind into useable energy. Likewise, understanding how and why clouds form and how they move can provide insight into how these clouds would impact a solar plant’s production.
Q: What do you envision for renewable energy grid integration over the next few years?
KO: The reliable and cost effective integration of renewable energy is a critical component to utilities’ ability to meet the many state Renewable Portfolio Standards that are in place across the U.S., and for achieving a sustainable energy future. Currently, the availability of transmission is a major barrier. It takes much longer to build new transmission than it does to build a new wind or solar plant. There is also a lot of potential flexibility in power systems. The difficulty is in how the utilities can fully utilize and optimize this flexibility while maintaining system reliability and integrity. Over the next few years, renewable energy grid integration will continue to be a hot topic.
Q: What can you never start a day at the lab without?
KO: On most days, I take a quick look at the local weather conditions and forecasts.
Q: What do you enjoying doing in your free time?
KO: Running, rock climbing, storm chasing, painting and hiking – pretty much anything outdoors.