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.
Elizabeth Endler, Shell
What disciplines did you focus on in your undergraduate and graduate education, and what were your original career goals?
My field of study was chemical engineering for both undergraduate and graduate school. I originally planned to go to medical school, but had the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research and really enjoyed it. The research was on biological subjects as well as more traditional chemical engineering research in advanced separations and process control and optimization. I ended up changing directions, and in 1998 I started grad school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, working at the intersection of material science, interfacial science, and systems biology. I was focused on developing rapid diagnostic evaluation for understanding viral evolution and propagation. At that time renewable energy wasn’t as visible as it is today; it wasn’t receiving significant funding from the Department of Energy and industry.
What jobs did you have in your early years out of school?
In my first several years after I received my PhD I worked at 3M on product development, manufacturing, and customer support related to consumer cleaning products, and at Shell in chemicals and raw materials for a range of applications. While these were not in the area of renewable energy or energy systems integration, I gained key skills that have been useful throughout my career, including identifying customer needs, developing solutions, and having a good working knowledge of commercial and financial considerations in industry.
Were there key moments in your career trajectory that played an important role in your arriving at your current work?
I got into renewable energy and energy systems integration upon the creation of a new team in Shell in 2011 that focused on evaluating and demonstrating near-commercial and early-commercial technologies that had the potential to be a significant part of a low-carbon energy transition. Since then I’ve worked with energy storage, energy system flexibility, integration, and microgrids, across a range of scales and different types of technologies.
My role in this team was built on my earlier responsibilities related to sustainability, which grew into technical work along the way. One example of a project was a demonstration in 2014 of energy storage with colleagues at DNV GL, Group NIRE (a nonprofit research group in west Texas), and Sandia National Labs to look at operability of storage at the MW scale. It was an early demonstration of operating energy storage with multiple use cases.
I also had the opportunity to serve on the advisory committee for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Utility of the Future Study. This project looked at how the electricity system moves toward being more distributed, more consumer-based, and more renewables-based, moving away from the historically centralized model, including what technical, regulatory, financial, and commercial changes are needed. It was an opportunity to look at how electricity is delivered in a new paradigm.
I currently lead Shell’s energy system integration technical team and Shell’s global energy storage research and development team, in addition to serving as the Principal Science Expert for electrification, integration, and energy storage. My colleagues and I develop technologies, support projects, and help evaluate venture investments related to system integration and storage across scales. We also collaborate with external partners at universities and national labs on energy storage projects that include fundamental phenomena of materials and devices, novel product concepts, supply chain development, and technoeconomic considerations.
Were there key people who played an important role in your arriving at your current work in energy systems integration?
People who have played a role in my professional development include leaders and mentors who provided space and funding to create opportunities as well as the encouragement to deliver them. When doing something new, especially a bit outside of what would be considered traditional — whether a specific project or whole career path — it’s really important to have that space and encouragement.
For system integration and storage, I’ve had amazing colleagues who were established in the industry who helped bring me along. For example, early on I had colleagues in the Shell wind business (now part of Shell’s broader new energy business) who supported my learning about renewable generation and power markets. I also benefited from the collective wisdom and expertise of many others, including project engineers, academic collaborators, traders, and economists. And there have been important people in my wider networks. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of professional societies, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS), Electrochemical Society (ECS), and Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Engineering.
What guidance would you offer a young person interested in a career in renewable energy or energy systems integration?
At the top of the list is: build a solid foundation in your discipline. This gives you the ability to start looking for connections and to know where and how you can add value. For example, my training in optimization and control of chemical processes provided a foundation upon which I could build other types of systems. So even where I’m not the deep technical expert, I have the ability to participate productively in project discussions. On the flip side, my expertise in interfacial science allows me to go deep into the physics of electrochemical energy storage and how that applies to fast charging of electric vehicles. Another element of productive participation in a team is learning to speak the language of that community. Be familiar with its vocabulary and the important metrics.
I would also advise young people to get practical experience as early as possible, because that starts to really open up your knowledge around possibilities and interests, showing you what does and does not suit you. Whenever you have an opportunity to reduce things to practice — creating an object, writing, giving a presentation, developing a product — take it, because that’s where things come together, and you can understand not just the pieces but what it takes to get there and how you respond to it. It helps you answer the question, “is this for me?”
What workforce needs do you see in renewable energy and energy systems integration?
The biggest thing, from my perspective at an integrated energy company, is how electricity is so much more integrated in places where it wasn’t historically, notably, transportation and industry. Just as for students, people in the workforce need to learn the language of the community and view challenges from multiple perspectives. In industry, for example, you always have the financial and commercial lenses, but there are different perspectives that depend on the specific business. It is important to be able to ask: what are the key levers and key considerations for this situation?
The current and future workforce needs to have exposure to and an understanding of the breadth and interconnections we see today. I’ve been crossing disciplines for a long time, having worked in graduate school with two different research groups in systems biology and in materials science, and I see this crossing of disciplines more and more in the realm of electrification. We’re starting to put these technologies together — for example, there is increasing cross-over between the power sector, industry, residential, commercial, transportation — and everyone in the workforce is on a learning curve. This is one of the reasons I joined ESIG, so that I could both share with and learn from the wider community.