NREL Scientists Dive Into Data In Search Of Answers

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Escape into nature. Inhale the mountain air. Glimpse a hawk kiting on the wind. These are the experiences Lindy Williams cherishes as a born-and-raised Coloradan.

They are also the experiences she is working to preserve for others as a data scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

With that mission in mind, Williams immerses herself in data and models to see life on Earth in new ways and achieve the breakthroughs our planet needs. Applying her modeling expertise and manipulating data to better understand how flora and fauna — and people — can thrive among the technologies that are transforming energy, Williams wrestles with questions such as:

  • How can birds safely fly around wind farms?
  • How can engineers achieve more accurate prognoses of individual wind turbine components?
  • How can air quality be preserved amid growing transportation hubs?
Lindy Williams, researcher in the Data, Analysis, and Visualization Group at NREL. Photo by Brianna Cote Photography

Williams’ work can be visualized in NREL’s Insight Center — where models, created by colleagues Rimple Sandhu and Charles Tripp, come alive. With her feet planted firmly on the ground and her sights set on a clean energy future for the world, Williams, and others, can soar through a 3D rendering of the model of an eagle’s flight path.

Routes through wind farms begin to emerge as she tweaks her model. But birds are not the only ones interacting with wind turbines. For the humans who operate and maintain wind farms, mechanical reliability is important. Williams’ analysis of generator and gear box data helps identify potential performance weaknesses that are undetectable to the human eye.

Examples of Williams’ successful teamwork can be found in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) Wind Energy Digitalization Task 43 and her co-authored presentation on predictive analytics for turbine component failures.

When Williams is not focusing on flight paths for birds, she is thinking about clean energy pathways for planes — and the transportation centers that connect them.

Athena Team Targets Airport Congestion

If anything is in great need of a cleaner energy pathway, it is the interdependent and rapidly evolving mass transportation network of people and goods worldwide ­— which generated 8.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide in 2018, according to the IEA. (One gigaton is equivalent to 10,000 fully loaded U.S. aircraft carriers.) In 2019, the transportation sector generated the largest share (29%) of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Williams’ modeling and analysis skills, along with her leadership, play a key role in advancing NREL’s work in understanding, predicting, and determining the impacts of various clean transportation pathways. That is why she was asked by Caleb Phillips, principal investigator for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Athena — a pilot program at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) aimed at identifying sustainable growth models to alleviate congestion — to lead analysis tasks for the program.

More quantitative research is needed to evaluate the congestion created by ground transportation to and from airports. As more mobility options — like electric and autonomous vehicles — are selected by individuals at various scales, airports need to anticipate the resulting behavioral changes and identify smart growth pathways. Without careful analysis, these behavioral changes could lead to inefficient and costly airport operations.

In their article in Transportation Research Part AA Modeling Framework for Designing and Evaluating Curbside Traffic Management Policies at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the Athena team’s NREL and Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers presented a modeling framework that integrates travel mode encoding, demand projection, and microsimulation to enable airports to develop, simulate, and evaluate curbside traffic management policies and measure their impact.

“Turning ideas into an actionable road map is so much fun,” she said. “It is a massive group effort, and the team is truly incredible.”

Using this framework, the researchers analyzed several traffic scenarios and policies for DFW, which included running simulations to model the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their results demonstrated that, relative to other measures:

  • Increasing DFW transit ridership postpones the need for airport curbside expansion the longest.
  • Encouraging shared mobility with a bus-only policy produces the greatest reduction in curbside congestion delays.
  • Automation and electrification for all passenger vehicle trips to or from DFW generate the largest fuel consumption and emissions reductions.
  • Uncontrolled autonomous vehicle adoption incurs the highest increase in fuel consumption, delays, and emissions, and could require immediate airport capacity expansion.

DFW saw immediate value in the deep-dive modeling and data analysis performed by Williams and the Athena team. Inspired by this success, Williams and her colleague Monte Lunacek sought an opportunity to apply and grow this critical knowledge.

Award Expands Opportunities To Transform Transportation

With the support of Caleb Phillips, Williams and Lunacek received a $75,000 grant from DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office. The award enabled them to leverage lessons learned from Athena to optimize the flow of goods at airports and other transportation hubs.

This effort took place as part of Energy I-Corps — an intensive two-month training program sponsored by DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions where national laboratory researchers define value propositions, conduct customer discovery interviews, and develop viable market pathways for their technologies. As participants in the program, Williams and Lunacek conducted 75 interviews to better understand how investments in transportation hubs could change the landscape of the industry.

“We learned a lot about where the industry is and what the appetite for technology is,” Williams said. “This grant gave us the opportunity to ask questions and understand more details around what is possible.”

Driven by Passion, Powered by People

Although there is a need for data analysis in nearly every field, NREL’s mission aligned with Williams’ passion. It was her dedication to reducing emissions and preserving our natural environment that led her to NREL in 2018 to work on data analysis and visualization.

But it is the people at NREL that keep her there.

Williams admires and draws inspiration from many of the women at NREL. She strives to follow their lead as she drives a variety of data analytics projects. “I have been fortunate to work alongside very smart, strong female leaders, in addition to men who have been both helpful and encouraging throughout my journey,” she said.

Driven by passion and powered by people, Williams and her team of talented data scientists are solving complex problems to preserve simple pleasures. And data is leading the way.

Where will NREL’s computational science capabilities pop up next in your world? Visit NREL’s Computational Science web site for the latest information.

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