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.
Jenny Riesz, Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO)
What fields did you pursue in your undergraduate and graduate education, and what were your original career goals?
I have a Bachelor of Science degree and PhD in physics. In my graduate studies I worked at the intersection of biology and physics, and my dissertation research at the University of Queensland was on the melanin pigment molecule; I was interested in using techniques from the discipline of physics to understand biological systems. It was during my PhD that I became aware of climate change, and I decided I wanted to work on renewable energy. However, there was no clear path to renewable energy from where I currently was. I was invested in finishing my PhD in biophysics, but began networking in the renewable energy world. I feel very lucky to have had a supportive dissertation supervisor who was a great mentor. He helped me to see how my work contributed to the bigger picture, and I always came away from our weekly meetings energized and excited about the project.
The most important thing I learned from studying physics was a problem-solving approach — how to take an abstract, novel, and complex problem, and break it down into parts that can be worked through. General quantitative skills have also been extremely important in my career.
Where did you go in your early years out of school, and how did your positions intersect with renewable energy and energy systems integration?
After completing my PhD in 2007, I applied for a wide range of positions related to renewable energy, but didn’t get much interest from employers given my background. Then I made a connection with Ian Rose, whose company, Roam Consulting, did energy market modeling. His strategy was to employ smart people who had a quantitative background but not necessarily specific knowledge of energy market modeling. At the time, renewable energy wasn’t really a thing in Australia, but he offered that if we did get work in renewable energy, he’d make sure I was on the project. Just a few months later, Australia announced a renewable energy target of 20% by 2020, and interest exploded. Everyone wanted to know how this was going to change the market. The current models did not have a sophisticated representation of wind or solar; so I was able to take on the challenge of figuring out how weave them in and create realistic models with renewables.
I was at Roam Consulting for six years and loved it. But eventually I got itchy feet — it was a small consultancy, and I wanted to grow and expand my knowledge. I left reluctantly and began a three-year postdoc at the Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, modeling high-renewable grids. Unlike consulting, where you need to focus on the questions the client wants, at UNSW I had free rein to do any sort of analysis that I wanted. I could tackle the big questions: How do you get to 100% renewables? What would that look like? What are the barriers, and how do we address them?
Some years earlier, Beyond Zero Emissions released a very influential report showing how Australia could reach 100% renewables. The modeling was relatively simplistic, but the conclusions still stand, and it really laid the groundwork for a lot of future work. I was very inspired, and wanted to focus my work on how we make this a reality, and how we work through all the challenges to make it operate properly.
I loved research but ultimately wanted to influence real outcomes in industry. I was offered an exciting position at the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), analyzing and addressing emerging power system challenges. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be working in this space, needing to develop new models and novel approaches to study real power system outcomes, and work out how we make high renewable grids operate securely and reliably in a very practical way.
I now lead a team that explores emerging challenges related to very high levels of distributed photovoltaics in Australian grids. It’s challenging and always changing, and I feel very lucky.
What guidance would you offer a young person interested in a career in renewable energy and energy systems integration?
I would advise a them to take every opportunity to learn. I’ve done a lot of projects that were only peripherally related to renewables, but these projects gave me knowledge and skills I could transfer to other areas. I would also advise a young person to worry less about job security or money, and instead prioritize building knowledge and skills, and trust that incredible opportunities will arise when you work hard, and take pride in what you deliver.
What workforce needs do you see in renewable energy and/or energy systems integration?
Power system modeling skills are hard to find, and the demand for them is huge and growing. Power system modeling is becoming ever more complex. Skills with PSS/E, PSCAD, and other simulation tools are rare, and folks who come out of engineering school having those skills are valuable.
More generally, there is a lack of people who can solve the difficult, new problems that we have. This takes initiative, drive, creativity, social skills, and communication skills. We need to be able to work with a team with diverse views, and to be able to communicate what we’re finding and bring stakeholders on board with actions that are required. The first step is usually to convince people there is a problem, which requires telling a clear story, with clear evidence. We have to bring the whole industry on a journey together.