Serena Patel at the beach.

EcoBlock Alumni Spotlight: Serena Patel on Advancing the Energy Transition Through Data, Technology, and Policy

Eunice Chung

Serena Patel is a master’s student in the Technology and Policy program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a research associate at the MIT Energy Initiative. She holds a B.S. in Energy Engineering and a minor in Energy and Resources from UC Berkeley, where her research focused on community microgrids in East Africa. Since then, Serena has developed controls for grid-responsive buildings as a Data Science Associate at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), working on projects like the Oakland EcoBlock. We recently caught up with Serena to see what she’s been up to since her time with EcoBlock.

EC: Tell me about your EcoBlock experience. How did you get involved with the project, and what did you work on?    

SP: I first heard about EcoBlock from some of my peers at UC Berkeley who were involved in Phase I of the project. Less than a year after I graduated, I started working at LBNL as a Data Science Associate. During my time there, I was actively involved in Phase II of the EcoBlock project, where I supported the design and development of a software-based community minigrid energy cost tool that would inform community decision-making. This tool outputs projected energy costs for the EcoBlock residents given inputs describing different solar and storage designs and production, and projected energy consumption for each resident under full electrification. 

Embedded in the minigrid energy cost tool is an existing electricity cost calculator from LBNL I adapted to include the most up-to-date utility tariffs with input from key service providers such as Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and East Bay Community Energy (EBCE). These open-source tools were developed with the intent to help assess the economics of future community microgrids.

Tariff Relationship Diagram
The effective implementation of the EcoBlock community microgrid relies on a combination of different rates and tariffs. Credit: Oakland EcoBlock

What were the biggest highlights or takeaways from your time with EcoBlock? 

One key takeaway I had from working with the EcoBlock team was seeing the impacts of policy and regulation on the technical design of the block-level electricity system. While high-level policies from the city and state helped launch this pilot project, other regulations that govern energy storage operation, distributed energy generation compensation, and distribution system infrastructure served as roadblocks that make deploying electrification and distributed energy resources (DERs) challenging. These observations, along with a desire to develop my data science skills and communicate relevant policy findings, were foundational to my decision to pursue graduate education. Otherwise, one of the ultimate highlights of EcoBlock was getting to enjoy some pizza and talk about microgrid tariffs, designs, and projected costs with the block!

How has your time with EcoBlock shaped your academic and/or professional interests?

My time with EcoBlock gave me perspective on the future of our energy systems, the key players involved in the energy transition, and my own academic and professional interests in data science, energy modeling, and energy justice. I was inspired by how EcoBlock centered community members and brought together different stakeholders—including local utilities, policy makers, researchers, and industry professionals—to formulate a tangible, holistic vision for a resilient and renewable electricity system. 

My background in energy engineering equipped me with skills across a wide array of engineering disciplines as well as insights into energy policy and justice. But when searching for a job after college, I struggled to find roles where I could flourish. I felt that many roles were specialized, and while I would certainly grow a lot from those positions, they didn’t fully capture where I might actually have the most value. Working at LBNL and on the EcoBlock project brought it all together for me: I found myself drawn to the data science skills I was developing and was able to envision what an interdisciplinary career would look like in this field. I‘m beyond grateful for the mentorship I received from Richard Brown and Marco Pritoni, my supervisors at LBNL, and Sascha von Meier and Therese Peffer from the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE) at UC Berkeley. 

What have you been up to since?

For the past year, I’ve been pursuing a master’s degree in Technology and Policy at MIT. I’ve had the privilege of taking some interesting and challenging classes in electricity system regulation, data science and statistics, critical geographic representation, and technology and public policy. 

I’m also a research associate at the MIT Energy Initiative, where my research focuses on converting coal plants into thermal batteries while reusing some of the existing industrial infrastructure. These thermal batteries are a form of long-duration energy storage and can be made from abundant, readily available, low-cost, non-toxic materials. I’m analyzing where and when these retrofit solutions are economically and socially attractive in the context of India, which has ambitious renewable energy goals and a heavily coal-based power sector. Currently, I’m interning at the Council of Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) in Delhi, India this summer. Working with this public policy think tank has opened my eyes to the details that go into communicating technical research to multiple stakeholders, engaging with policymakers, and developing key data analysis tools at the intersection of climate, health, and energy policy.

Map locating coal power plants in India.
With coal power plants increasingly being seen as stranded assets, Serena’s research looks at turning these infrastructural units into large thermal batteries to support more renewables on the grid. Credit: Global Energy Monitor

What are you most excited about in the fields of energy and climate, and why?

I’m excited to engage in practical solutions that advance the energy transition. There are a lot of technical possibilities and local governance solutions for enacting sustainable, scalable change. 

I’m also really inspired by the innovative, context-specific diversity that comes from this type of changemaking. There’s momentum building up from the top-down and a push for corporations and political actors to act on climate and energy responsibly. There’s so much potential to accelerate an equitable energy transition, and I look forward to seeing how I can shape the fields of energy and climate through data, technology, and policy.

Lastly, what advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in energy and climate?  

Though I’m not the most qualified to give a response to this, I’ll summarize some formative pieces of advice I’ve received from friends and mentors. Students interested in pursuing a career in energy and climate should reflect on the specific areas of research and skill sets they find most interesting and pursue opportunities within that intersection. Practical work experience through summer internships can really help you understand your interests, which might evolve in the long-term, but it’s good to try new things and see what fits you best. 

I also suggest pushing your comfort zone: take interesting classes, talk to interesting people, and attend interesting events to help broaden your perspective and inform your decision-making. For my own career, I’ve tried to identify what I can bring to the climate and energy space by reflecting on the following questions: What are your communities? What identities do you hold? What brings you joy? What are you good at? What needs to be done? (adapted from @pattieonia and @intersectionalenivronmentalist)

Cover image credit: Serena Patel

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