Mrs. Barbara O’Neill is the Grid Integration Manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a representative for the G-PST Consortium. She leads projects and engages stakeholders to provide information on renewable energy integration practices, policies, regulations, and technologies. She has worked in such places as Tunisia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Morocco, Chad, Kazakhstan, Guyana, Vietnam, Mexico, Peru, Mongolia, China, Uzbekistan, and Colombia. Before NREL, she was Director at EDF Renewable Energy, where her team developed utility-scale wind and solar projects. Previously, she worked at Xcel Energy in Resource Planning where she negotiated hundreds of megawatts of renewable energy power purchase agreements, performed integrated resource planning, and optimized dispatch models. Mrs. O’Neill holds a B.S. in electrical engineering from Pratt Institute, an M.S. in energy management and policy from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Diplôme d’Ingénieur in petroleum economics and management from the Institut Français du Pétrole.
Tell us about yourself and your field of study/professional focus area.
I started at NREL in 2013 as the manager of the transmission grid integration group. I think NREL thought it would be good to bring in someone from the private sector. I had formerly worked at the wind/solar independent power producer, developer EDF-RE. Before that, I worked at Xcel, a large investor-owned utility. And before that I was in the consulting field – so I have worn quite a few different hats. My objective was to get NREL’s great research disseminated to the private sector and all related stakeholders with the aim of more renewable energy steel in the ground. I wanted to get these brilliant PhDs’ research off the bookshelves and into people’s awareness. When there was an opportunity to work on passing that message on via international audiences, I felt like I hit my stride, marrying my personal interest in travel to atypical vacation destinations and fascinating cultural settings with challenging wind and solar deployment arenas.
Describe your role and work with the G-PST Consortium.
Since then, I moved to the Accelerated Deployment and Decision Support Center at NREL and have worked on many international projects. I tend to straddle the fence of being technical enough to understand what the engineers are saying (without having deep expertise in power systems engineering) but also being able to explain in layman’s terms some of the issues to non-technical audiences, like policymakers or regulators.
When the G-PST was first conceived, I was so excited because it felt like there had been a gap in peer-to-peer knowledge transfer. We had received pushback from emerging economy system operators even when the executive or legislative side of the house was announcing aggressive clean energy targets. I’ve heard comments like: “We don’t have reliable-enough power system to afford the luxury of adding wind and solar power to our system”. And, “Our power quality is our number one priority; how can we focus on variable generation?”
Now, the answer is: there are others ahead of you that are out there doing it; let’s learn from them. In fact, let us leapfrog the lessons so developing system operators can get past trial and error and instead adopt the practices that have been learned the hard way by utilities pushing the envelope, with respect to variable generation.
In your own words, why is G-PST’s mandate, of supporting system operators through the clean energy transition, so critical to successfully decarbonizing power systems around the world?
It is not enough to announce laudable targets for clean energy shifts in the power sector. You need to get the staff who are operating the equipment, working the control rooms, performing line engineering on the ground to understand how variable renewable energy is not a threat to reliability, how security of supply can be maintained, and how power systems can evolve and even benefit from inverter-based resources. It takes a different mindset. We need to modernize the protocols, the systems, and then truly alter the traditional way of thinking by many utility staff around the world. Having the participation from our founding system operators is a great way to do that.
What has been the most exciting project you’ve been a part of through the G-PST?
Working with EPRI was such a great learning experience for me as we examined the COES control center in Peru. EPRI has advised many utilities on the modernization of control centers globally to accommodate shifting power systems. We utilized EPRI’s road map work and applied it to the COES system. It was an honor to learn from the masters, and think beyond the software or models, but rather about the functions of personnel and how to create success.
We plan on taking that work to help PLN in Indonesia with efforts to upgrade the control centers of Sulawesi province. I am hoping to talk to them about next steps when I attend the B20 in Bali in November. We have a great project team and look forward to starting that work as a follow on to a webinar series we did with PLN, as well as advising on Java-Bali control center upgrades.
What do you find to be the most meaningful aspect of your work?
Power sector decarbonization is indeed the lowest hanging fruit for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and hopefully forestalling global warming. But, at the end of the day, my relationship with people is the most meaningful aspect of life, both professionally and personally. I love to get out there and meet people from different cultures and understand their own unique situations; for example, what resources their country has, how their system is structured, owned, and governed, etc. Every country has a different story. And the more I work on the international front, the better equipped I am to facilitate success stories in various countries then use the cases to potentially suggest to other along the curve.
Women often face barriers to working and becoming leaders in many engineering fields. As a woman in the power systems field, what advice would you give to young women and young people who want to develop a successful career in power systems?
I think it is atypical for women to be in the electrical engineering field. When I went to school in the late 1980s, there were only about 13% of women in my graduating engineering class. I don’t know what that number is now, but it is nowhere near 50-50. In some countries that have made women in science a priority, you see much more women rising through the ranks. For example, the Colombia system operator has many smart, strong, and powerful women in a career track.
There’s absolutely no reason why women can’t be successful in this field, but we must break through those glass ceilings. In some cultures in which I work, there is a belief that women will slow down or take a break with children, and therefore it’s not worth investing in them as employees. But I think the beauty is in balancing family and professional life. That way we can prove the naysayers wrong and set a role model for our girls. Women are proving themselves every day, and I’m so happy to see the recent focus on how much discrimination really exists so that we can bring awareness to and dispel that implicit bias. We need to keep fighting for equal pay and equal acclaim. I have been fortunate to interface with so many amazing female colleagues throughout my career and witness their success. They serve as an inspiration to me.
How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
I am a mom to three kids: a daughter who is 12 and boy-girl twins who are 8, so that keeps me busy. I mountain bike, road ride, and motorcycle, so a lot of two-wheel focus. I’ve motorcycled in over a dozen countries (and have been to about 120). I am enchanted with the world and all its wonders. I also love yoga, skiing, gardening, cooking, and reading. And I attend a fabulous church (Mile Hi, in Lakewood, Colorado) and sing in a neighborhood choir. We also love camping, hiking, and all water sports. Just last month, our family sailed in Greece for vacation.