About The Series: ESIG members play many different kinds of roles in energy systems integration and have followed unique paths to their current positions. This “Career Perspectives” blog series taps into the diversity of experiences and perspectives of ESIG members through interviews that explore their educational backgrounds, career trajectories, key decision points, and mentorship experiences, as well as how they see today’s workforce needs in energy systems integration and what advice they would give students considering a career in this area.
Antje Orths, Energinet
What field of study did you pursue in your undergraduate studies, and what were your original career goals?
When I went to the “Gymnasium,” the school between the ages of 10 and 19 in Germany, all I knew was that I wanted to go to university. I went to the work agency to learn about professions, and many sounded interesting: architect, medical doctor, sound engineer, or sound director. I did not feel a clear direction, and I chose sound director, which is a combination of orchestra conductor and sound engineer. There were just three places in Germany to get that training. I chose to go to the Berlin University of Arts, where I found out, during the entrance exam, that there were 80 applicants for only five spots, and several of the other applicants were far better at piano than little me. I then realized that the Technical University of Berlin offered an alternative way to reach my goal, where I could study electrical engineering with a specialization in technical acoustics. So, even though I had had little in the way of physics or chemistry in my previous schooling, I found myself in a room with 500 young men and maybe 16 young women studying electrical engineering.
I became friends with three guys who had finished three years of practical education to be a technician and gone back to university to learn more. Two of them convinced me that working with energy is saving the future—by helping to avoid another Chernobyl disaster.
After two or three years of basics you had to specialize—in Berlin at that time it was for another six or seven years. Renewables were very new in 1991, and I was not able to take this as my main subject, but I took it as a side subject. My courses were in high current technology, power electronics, and wind energy, and I wanted to also have photovoltaics. But study regulations did not allow students to study both wind and photovoltaics. I had to apply and argue for it in front of the entire faculty council, who told me that the combination of wind and PV had no future. After quite some back and forth, they finally accepted.
I wanted to save the planet. This was my motivation. I could go out and demonstrate, but I thought it may be better to do something each and every day. Shaping the energy future seemed to me really a good option.
In what area did you do your PhD research?
To proceed toward getting a PhD in the German system, you are hired by a university to teach and to acquire and execute research projects, and if you’re lucky you can make a PhD out of it. My PhD was composed of the findings of several research projects: one rather large national research program on trans-European networks and some industry projects. My topic was “multi-criterial, optimal planning of distribution networks in liberalized energy markets applying game theoretical methods.” This was merging the topic of network planning with methods from mathematics and economics.
I had actually never planned to do a PhD; I stumbled into my first job at the Magdeburg University of Applied Sciences as a teacher when I was practicing to do job interviews and to my surprise they hired me. Around that time a new professor started his job at another university in the same town (the Otto-von-Guericke University) and founded a new department on electrical networks and alternative energy resources. I switched jobs and started as the first employee—now research engineer. It was quite an interesting time helping to build everything up in a continuously growing team, and, additionally, being at an Eastern German university only a decade after the fall of the Berlin wall. Finally, I could work with my topic, which was completely new at that university. We had to succeed in a strange place with a strange topic. It simply had to work.
Because this topic was so new, I was fairly isolated. However, once a year participating members of the national research program coming from 16 German power engineering universities met, and we had to report on our research to leaders in the field. So once a year I had the opportunity to see others’ progress as well as my own, and this reassured me that I was on the right track. Networking remains very important in my professional life.
Into what job did you move after your PhD?
After I finished my PhD, around 2002 and about halfway through the available six years of my contract, I created a new course on wind energy and helped to create a department of network planning at the research institute, which I ran for more than two years.
When that contract came to an end, it was time to move on. Over the course of my studies I had had opportunities to meet people at conferences around the world, and one company I had seen that had extremely good ideas and extremely good engineers was the predecessor of Energinet, the Danish transmission system operator (TSO). After my time ended at the Otto-von-Guericke University I applied for a one-year contract with that company, and this turned into a permanent position.
I have always been involved in international research projects related to wind integration. That started with the first European joint TSOs’ study on wind integration in 2007, which resulted in the European Wind Integration Study in 2010. The most recent research project was the PROMOTioN project looking at offshore wind integration.
Energinet sent me as a delegate to the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E) to collaborate with the other European TSOs. In that context I worked with network planning and renewable energy systems integration, leading the ENTSO-E Northern Seas Region for five years, until January 2021. Now I’m leading ENTSO-E’s offshore development group, where we tackle a broad variety of topics. It is an interesting time. Our mission is to provide TSOs’ views on offshore development supporting the European targets which aim to fulfill the Paris climate targets [ENTSO-E’s views on offshore development]. We’re also talking a lot about sector integration: The European plan is to first decarbonize the power sector and then other sectors as well; here, electrification is big topic. Everything plays into our ENTSO-E 10-year network development plans—which actually cover a 20-year period.
These discussions all involve translating technical issues for policymakers in the European Commission—and vice versa, translating their strategies and policies into some concrete impact assessment.
I’m where I always wanted to be. When doing my PhD, I always appreciated global thinking and the merging of topics, as you can see by my PhD topic being the marriage between two disciplines and applying global optimization. I’m in the perfect place.
Was there a key moment in your career trajectory that played an important role in your arriving at your current work in renewable energy and energy systems integration?
A key moment in my career was my involvement with the International Energy Agency Task 25, Design and Operation of Power Systems with Large Amounts of Wind Power, beginning in 2007, where I represent the Danish TSO. It is a nice-sized group, not too big and not too small, where we exchange experience and research and share skills. I receive a great deal of ideas and input there. In the course of my work, I have to deliver all of the time, and sometimes it’s also good to get something new into my head. We learn together and enhance one another’s work as well as the work of the group. This group addresses many issues around integrating renewables into the grid, an effort that has now grown to encompass sector integration and entire energy systems.
Were there key people that played an important role in your career path?
My PhD supervisor at the Otto-von-Guericke University pushed us to do very hard work, to do many things in parallel, to solve seemingly impossible tasks. But he always let us know why that exercise was good for us; he helped us keep growing. I was his first employee in a newly created department working on a new topic. We had to succeed. Failure was not an option. That was our little Apollo mission.
Some of my Danish bosses also played an important role. The Danish way of delegating responsibility (a flat organizational structure) gave me a mandate to represent the company in various contexts, trusting that what I did would be okay, or even win-win-win (for the company, for the project or group, and for a happy co-worker (myself)). Some doors opened as a result that were valuable for my career path.
And Charlie Smith [executive director of ESIG] has played an important role. He is a phenomenon, with a brilliant brain, memory, and nose for putting the right people together who go on to have inspiring, interactive conversations; make progress on joint articles, reports, research, etc.; and have fun while doing so.
What guidance would you offer a young person interested in a career in energy systems integration?
They should get solid professional training. Engineers are greatly needed. They should like what they do and have a vision. I would say to believe in yourself. There are always hard times, and it will be necessary to move on.
And I would tell them to be curious. Work hard, and doors you didn’t expect or didn’t know about will suddenly start opening. We have to walk through those doors.
Once I thought about distributing flyers about the profession of engineers at the Friday demonstrations. These young people have so much energy, and it would be so valuable if some of them found their way to engineering and continued their mission there. If they decide carefully where they want to spend eight hours a day, and keep their eye on their goal, they will reach a place that is good for them.
What workforce needs in energy systems integration do you see?
As we integrate these hundreds of gigawatts of offshore wind into the European system, with conventional generation disappearing, it’s a complete remake of the system. We need many, many engineers to rethink the system, and it needs to go fast. We need many power engineers to really understand the system. We also need chemical engineers to work on hydrogen topics, transforming from electrons to molecules.
It’s more than a computer game, but the electricity network is the platform for all of these games on top of it. Somebody still has to understand the platform, the electricity grid. The control systems or HVDC or protection systems, understanding how to get the renewables into the system, get it across to other systems and sectors—you have to understand many energy systems.