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Q&A with NODES Program Director Dr. Sonja Glavaski

March 29, 2016

Q&A with NODES Program Director Dr. Sonja Glavaski 

Dr. Sonja Glavaski

1. Tell us a little about your background. How does your previous experience provide insight into your work at ARPA-E and what encouraged you to pursue a role in this field?

I had the privilege of being trained in one of the world’s best control systems programs, and I have been a research scientist for more than twenty years in world-class research organizations working on a broad range of control system application areas. 

Before coming to ARPA-E I was a Control Systems Group Leader at United Technologies Research Center (UTRC), where I led a team of very talented control scientists. We worked on developing game changing technologies for energy efficient buildings, wind turbines, fuel cells and flow batteries. It was at UTRC that I recognized the need to develop more systematic ways to integrate and operate all of these technologies with the electricity grid.

2. Why did you decide to come to ARPA-E?

We live in dynamic and exciting times. Worldwide, people are recognizing the need to prevent climate change. ARPA-E was specifically established to accelerate the development of radically new ways to produce, store and use energy. I was very excited to join ARPA-E and to do my part. On a broader scale, the energy actions and choices we all decide to take will directly affect the future of our children and the world we leave them.

Dr. Sonja Glavaski Fast PitchDr. Sonja Glavaski giving her Program Director Fast Pitch on 
"NODES: Controlling the Grid Edge" at the 2016 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit  

3. Can you describe your experience so far as a Program Director at ARPA-E?

ARPA-E is a dynamic place with incredibly talented people working towards the same goal.  As a Program Director, I’ve been defining a strategic direction for research addressing challenges facing the U.S. electric grid if it is to integrate and accept more energy from renewable generation and other Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the process of doing so, I have found tremendous support from the ARPA-E team, thought leaders in the industry and the broader research community. People understand what we are striving to achieve here at ARPA-E and are helping and supporting us to do so. 

4. Can you share with our readers about the Network Optimized Distributed Energy Systems (NODES) Program – what technology does this focus on and what problem is the program trying to solve? 

NODES Program Graphic I established the NODES program, which aims to enable renewable penetration at the 50% level or greater by developing innovative and disruptive technologies. NODES seeks to create a new approach to management of the two-way flow of power to and from homes and businesses that consume and deliver electricity back to the grid. The resulting virtual energy storage approach will address the intermittency of renewable energy, the lack of electricity production when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. The expected benefits of these technologies include improving grid efficiency, reducing CO2 emissions in power generation, and significant savings of system costs. 

NODES project teams will develop technologies that coordinate load and generation on the grid to create a virtual energy storage system. The teams will develop innovative hardware and software solutions to integrate and coordinate generation, transmission, and end-use energy systems at various points on the electric grid. These control systems will enable real-time coordination between distributed generation, such as rooftop and community solar assets and bulk power generation, while proactively shaping electric load. This will alleviate periods of costly peak demand, reduce wasted energy, and increase renewables penetration on the grid. 

5. Which parts of the NODES program are you most excited to explore further?

At high deployment levels, DERs can collectively become a valuable system asset if coordinated with system needs and control processes as they are fast acting and close to the loads. NODES anticipates net-load functionality beyond the current scenarios that could increase the benefits of DERs as an affordable, complementary technology for integrating renewables into the electric grid without loss of Quality of Service (QoS) to the consumer. 

Recent advances in sensing, communication and asset control enable the creation of a new model for grid operations that use novel system architectures and active control of load side resources to provide additional reserves and grid balancing services. Emerging new grid operation and business models will lead to new DER valuation mechanisms. I find this interplay of technological advancements, consumer engagement and new market creations rather fascinating. 

6. From your perspective, how do you define success for NODES in both the short- and long-term?

Developing technologies that enable innovative functionalities at the distribution level and facilitate seamless integration of renewable energy resources into the electric grid, NODES will complement efforts aiming to integrate renewables into the electric transmission system. With improved load and generation forecasting, and the introduction of local control and coordination algorithms, DERs could easily provide timely services to the electric grid and could be integrated into the current power grid. These technologies will provide a way for the long-term transformation to a future grid that equally benefits from all assets, regardless of their placement at the distribution or transmission level.

7. Given that March is Women’s History Month, let’s turn to a discussion of women in the energy sector and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields - what advice would you give to young women considering a career in these fields? 

Throughout my career I have mentored many junior researchers and, regardless of their gender, I have always advised them to follow their passion and strive for excellence. This is especially important for young women considering careers in STEM fields. Once you recognize what you are good at and what you like to do, nothing should prevent you from dedicating all your talent and energy to a very demanding but also very rewarding career path. I consider myself lucky to have had outstanding mentors from the very beginning of my education and throughout my professional career. Early on, my path was carved by my grade school teacher who recognized my interest in mathematics and dedicated a lot of his time to train me in the rigors of math while also helping me to recognize the beauty of it. 

While studying control systems at the University of Belgrade’s Electrical Engineering Department, one of my mentors was the only female professor working in this specific research area. She had recently returned from her Fulbright Foundation sponsored sabbatical in the United States. The research I performed with her and her colleagues prepared me to later join Professor John Doyle’s research group at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Professor John Doyle, aside from being a visionary, has always been supportive of women interested in control systems research, and has proactively recruited female talent into STEM fields. He taught our research group to never forget the “big picture” and how to make sure the foundation for research is solid and based on hard science. Doye’s former students and post-docs are prominent researchers, academics and industry leaders, and include Carolyn Beck, Irene Gregory, Xiaoyun Zhu, Dennice Gayme, Maryam Fazel, Na Li, and me. All of these amazing fellow researchers are my colleagues as well as my inspiration. Ultimately, John Doyle taught us all to be ourselves and reminded us that with hard work, rewards and recognition will follow.

8. Who are your STEM role models and what work are you seeing that excites you in this field or in the STEM community?

Two scientists stand as my true inspirations: Marie Curie and Nikola Tesla. Marie Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and the only person to win it twice -- and in multiple sciences. At the same time, Curie raised two successful daughters, one of whom continued the Curie family legacy and won the Nobel Prize herself. 

On the other hand, Nikola Tesla was a “man ahead of his time” as his inventions changed the world and became part of our everyday lives. Tesla’s work continues to motivate the energy research community. The path from fundamental research to commercial products with the potential to change the lives of the average person has become much shorter, and because of this, we are more likely to see how we change the world around us. 

More broadly, interdisciplinary research directly related to energy and environment is being supported not only by government agencies but also by private foundations and corporations, which I believe makes STEM careers more appealing to a larger talent pool.

For more information on Dr. Sonja Glavaski, please visit her profile on the ARPA-E website and explore all ARPA-E program director profiles