Electricity is probably one of the most significant achievements of all time. The biggest industries down to individual residences all rely upon electricity for almost everything. But what if power grids suddenly fail? With the traditional grids getting outdated and less inefficient, this is likely to happen IF interventions keep being delayed. About ⅓ of energy is delivered to end-users; the greater fraction goes to waste. Moreover, outdated traditional grids continue to pose security, safety, and equity issues. How? In this episode, Jennifer sits with MuGrid Analytics CEO, Amy Simpkins to uncover this overlooked problem we have today. Jennifer and Amy talk about the advantages of shifting from large centralized power plants that we use today to localized, distributed energy using microgrids. Learn how communities can maximize resiliency, advocate for energy equity, and ensure safety and security. The world needs a new way to define sustainability and renewable energy. Tune in and discover effective ways to pattern resilience metrics as Amy shares how to solve wicked problems with math and modeling!
“A fundamental principle of innovation is that if you want more diversity of ideas and possibilities, you need to have more diverse brains in the room. That’s not a diminishment of anyone. In fact, that’s an elevation of everyone.” -Amy Simpkins
- 02:52: Microgrid- Definition and Benefits
- 06:35: The Danger of Traditional Grids
- 14:55: How to Increase Resiliency
- 17:52 Security Issues and the Political Landscape
- 23:42:Modeling Resilience Metrics
- 30:43: Energy Equity and Environmental Issues
- 35:11: The Advantages of CHP-Based Solution
- 41:46: Evolve with the New Energy Economy
- 43:38: Women Power
- 50:00: Define Resilience in Your Own Life
08:26: “The more you have lines that are strung out over long distances, the more chance you have that disaster is going to disrupt the line along the way somewhere, and cause disruption for people who were on that line.” -Amy Simpkins
12:11: “The sources of our energy are our responsibility.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
16:16: “Bring the assets closer to where they’re used, and that means a greater amount of control.” -Amy Simpkins
22:36: “People should have a fundamental understanding of what’s going on so that they too can be part of the decisions.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
28:04: “The more complicated the rules get, the more frustrating it is for a customer. But also, the more opportunity there is to make an economic play.” -Amy Simpkins
32:12: “Just because you might serve one group doesn’t mean you’re leaving another group out. Everybody deserves a certain amount of equal access.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
35:01: “You have to have diversity in your systems. That will build resilience.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
45:35: “A fundamental principle of innovation is that if you want more diversity of ideas and possibilities, you need to have more diverse brains in the room. That’s not a diminishment of anyone. In fact, that’s an elevation of everyone.” -Amy Simpkins
Meet Amy Simpkins:
Amy Simpkins has over 15 years of experience in technical engineering and project management of complex systems and software. She is Chief Executive Officer at muGrid Analytics.
Prior to joining muGrid, Amy was an engineer and spacecraft systems architect with Lockheed Martin, where she worked on advanced R&D and design integration for earth observing and manned spacecraft. In this capacity, she assessed architectural choices based on design performance, operational power constraints, and program finance. Amy also spent several years in flight operations for unmanned scientific exploration spacecraft, where she helped monitor and manage the solar array performance, energy storage systems, and power budgets of long duration deep space missions. Her technical expertise includes system and software architecture, system-level performance modeling, and design tradespace analysis.
Amy has coached and consulted on product innovation, business strategy, marketing, and sales for startups and small businesses in the renewable energy, healthcare, and SaaS sales spaces. She is an internationally recognized speaker on innovation and integration for entrepreneurs and is the author of the book, Spiral: A Catalyst for Innovation and Expansion (Amazon). She holds an MS in Astronautical Engineering from the University of Southern California and an SB in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Connect with MuGrid:
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the podcast, How To Disaster. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, I’m the CEO of After The Fire. Today’s guest is really interesting and a little bit different for us. Amy Simpkins is an entrepreneur and founder of muGrid Analytics, which seeks to take on some of the biggest challenges we have in today having to do with both wildfires and disasters, and also equity. I’m going to let Amy explain more to you because it’s very complicated, and I want to make sure that she puts it in language. It’s much easier for our audience to sort of integrate into their thought processes about how we should be approaching disasters and the human condition.
Welcome to the podcast, Amy. I wanted to start off today, you’re a little bit different guests for us because we’re actually going to be addressing tech, and how can technology actually help us in our navigation of disaster, climate change, some of our really big problems in this world. A third of our work at After The Fire is related to resilience and recovery technologies, so I love having somebody on that has a very different skill set than I do who can really translate that for us. I’m going to read from your bio, and you’re going to tell me what does that even mean. Okay?
Amy Simpkins: Sounds great. Thanks.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay, so it says that you are the co-founder and CEO of muGrid Analytics. Amy Simpkins solves wicked problems. I love that language, by the way. At the intersection of energy technology and economics using math and modeling. Two things I’m really bad at. I’m so excited to have you on. muGrid provides bankable techno economic analysis, optimized control and project development of renewable energy, energy storage and microgrids, which we do love. I definitely know what those are, to maximize economic return, increase energy resilience and promote energy equity, which we love talking about equity in the United States and around the world. Give a master’s degree in Astronautical Engineering from USC. I’m also a USC grad, for my master’s degree, and you have a bachelor’s in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT. So it’s pretty clear that you are no intellectual slouch. So can you please, why don’t you tell us about yourself, and what exactly does all of that mean?
Amy Simpkins: Sure, absolutely. Thank you so much. Let’s start to talk about what I do right now in the company does and how it relates to resilience. And then we can talk about how I got to where I am. But you’re familiar with micro grids. The idea of a micro grid is that, the primary foundational concept of the microgrid is that it’s distributed energy. So instead of the way that we have generated electrical power for 150 years in this country, which is to have a large centralized power plants that are expected to serve a whole lot of facilities, homes, people that might be geographically a really long way away from them, a micro grid is a collection of energy generation and storage, distribution assets that sits together very close to where the energy is going to be used. So that’s a really different architecture from what we currently have in our traditional grid. You won’t see any of those really long, high tension, high voltage power lines with a micro grid, because you just don’t have to move energy over long distances. And we’re finding in the space that there are several different reasons to install micro grids. One is sustainability.
Most micro grids these days involve some sort of renewable energy, and that renewable energy can be used whether the grid is up or the grid is down. And so you can be sure that the energy you’re using on site is green, is good for the planet. Now, technically speaking, that old propane generator that you had out behind our back of your house, that’s a micro grid to any kind of generation asset that is locally available to the facility and that you’re able to use when the grid goes down is a micro grid. But micro grids for our purposes these days usually are multiple assets working together. So generation could be solar or wind, and it could be the propane generator to work all together. And then there’s usually some sort of energy storage. Because when you have renewables assets, particularly ones like solar wind which are the first ones that pop to mind, you can’t tell that energy when to be generated. It’s there when the sun is out, it’s there when the wind is blowing, and it’s not there when it’s not. So you have to have somewhere to put it, otherwise, that energy is ephemeral and it just leaves. And usually, there’s some form of energy storage, the front running technology for energy storage right now is a battery, particularly lithium ion batteries. And there are some economic and technical industry reasons why that is, but it doesn’t have to be a lithium ion battery.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: There’s also some environmental downsides to lithium batteries too.
Amy Simpkins: For sure, which is why I will be very excited to see both battery technology specifically and storage technology in general evolve from those, but they’re what we got right now. And as a technology, they’re very mature because of the way the personal electronics industry has evolved. And so they’re available there now, and that’s what we’ve got for the moment.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Let me actually put a pin in that really quickly. Because for those people who maybe, they’ve never been through a disaster. Maybe they’ve watched the wildfires on television, but they haven’t experienced themselves, but maybe they don’t understand exactly what is the danger of having these really old power grids that run hot power lines for many miles over the forest. I’m sort of leading the witness here, I’m definitely leading the witness. But talk about how that directly relates to our resiliency, not only is it ecologically better, but how is that–
Amy Simpkins: Sure. Yeah, no. So when we say that there’s these long power lines that are running, we call that a centralized architecture, centralized generation, these long transmission systems that have to operate at a high voltage in order to push that energy to your house at the end of the line, or whoever’s house at the end of the line. There’s several different reasons that this is just suboptimal for us from a resilience standpoint, and the one that you’re getting at is that it actually can turn out to be a safety concern. During times when there is high fire danger, whether that’s dry weather, low water resource, those you have all of that energy in the same place and it’s operating at these very extreme technical places, the chance of a spark of some sort is higher there, and any chance of spark in those situations can cause havoc on the system. They’re also vulnerable to lightning interactions, which can do the same thing. So can actually cause a fire or some form of natural disaster just in the way that they’re the architecture of the system. That’s not the only reason they’re a threat to resilience. Another threat is that they’re vulnerable.
“The more you have lines that are strung out over long distances, the more chance you have that disaster is going to disrupt the line along the way somewhere, and cause disruption for people who were on that line.” -Amy Simpkins
For example, when we talk about now, Oregon has had its share of wildfires, for sure. Power shutdowns due to fire danger are a thing there as well. But Oregon is also sitting in what we call the Cascadia subduction zone, which is a fault line out in the ocean that is long years overdue for some kind of massive earthquake. And if and when that happens, that earthquake could either directly affect infrastructure on land, or it could cause a tidal wave that then comes and affects infrastructure on land. And the more you have lines that are strung out over long distances, the more chance you have that some sort of disaster is going to disrupt the line along the way somewhere and cause a disruption for people who were on that line. And usually, the people who are on the ends of those long lines are rural residents, farmers, indigenous people who are living on reservation areas and are vulnerable anyway. And then they’re the most vulnerable to natural disasters. And then sort of the final thing I’ll say that we’re seeing right now in the West is the low water level in the reservoirs. A lot of the power, even though it is clean energy coming from hydroelectric, coming from dams, and the dams are operating in a lot of ways at reduced capacity are having to be shut off in the case of the Lake–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: The Oroville Dam in Butte County, and Butte County is very wildfire vulnerable, and that’s where the Dixie fire started. It’s raging right now. It’s very difficult to witness. And I’m actually, there’s another bonus if you explain how energy works. We’re in the midst of a PS right now. Not in this office, but several thousands residents in Northern California, including in the valley where I live, currently do not have any energy. And I noticed that on social media, this will bring out a lot of armchair energy experts who’ve decided that they know the one way this should be done. And invariably, by they mean, well, I’ve never seen one that’s an actual energy expert. I’m just want to say as a side note, thank you for explaining these things. I think that when it’s in the flatlands and you don’t feel the wind, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t 90 mile an hour winds at the other side of the grid. I see it like tin can, to tin can, to tin cans. That’s how old the technology is, and that’s a big reason why we have to change and be resilient. Undergrounding isn’t going to work in all situations. Keep going.
Amy Simpkins: Well, and there’s one more. So we’ve got the actual fire danger of large high voltage equipment, we’ve got the vulnerability of long duration transmission to other disaster events including tidal waves, big wind, storms, etc. We’ve got the last one, which is that even though we have clean, centralized generation, like hydro power, that’s still centralized generation, and you’re still creating these problems of having to transmit that energy over long distances. And the fourth one is that sometimes, the public service power shut offs aren’t a safety issue. Sometimes, because there’s not enough power on the grid. And that’s something that’s going to be more and more of a concern. The reason that that’s happening is because we’re in summertime, and part of the cause of like the fires in the fire danger environment is this tremendously hot weather, especially tremendously hot weather in some areas that don’t normally get it like Seattle, and everyone’s cranking their air conditioning all at the same time, and the demand on the system is going up. And now, we as Americans, we are so used to such a reliable electrical grid. You walk in your room, and you flip the light switch on, and the lights come on, you don’t even think about it, you don’t even realize that most of the world doesn’t work like that. Most of the world can’t always expect their light switch to turn the lights on.
“The sources of our energy are our responsibility.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They have nightly blackouts. I remember being in India even 20 years ago, and every night, the power would go off for one to two hours and it was scheduled. Everybody knew it was coming. But here in this country, many of us don’t think about it. When we turn the faucet on, the clean water is going to be there. We also don’t think about the source of our energy are our responsibility in conserving it other than when we get a big bill.
Amy Simpkins: As we move as a culture, you’ll hear the word energy industry where we talk about renewables, electric vehicles and all that. You’ll hear the phrase electrify everything. And the reason we talked about that is because we want to get off of fossil fuels. That’s the best thing for the planet, of course. But once you electrify everything, heating, cooking and transportation are the main things you’re talking about there. The load growth on our system is going to be huge, even at a time where we’re trying to decommission fossil fuel base assets. So how does that work? A lot of these public servers power shut off because there’s just not enough power, which is why you’re getting requests from Costco and stuff like that to, please turn down your air conditioning, everyone limited to 86 degrees, and we might be able to get through without rolling blackouts because we need to bring the peaks down for the sake of the system. And that may not be a safety issue, that may be an availability of power issue.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That makes sense. I think all of us remember the Enron scandal too. I know that once we started having PSPS about two and a half years ago, I would have been more amenable to going on all electric, but they were lasting up to six days. And that would mean no hot water. That means it’s already bad if you are in an area where you depend upon a well, because the wells actually run off electricity. So there’s a whole bunch of ancillary things that we are very dependent on. I’m interested in your work around finding different ways to increase our resiliency in our everyday lives and help the planet. This is obviously called, How To Disaster and how do we innovate our way through this. We do not just have to sit back, burn down and die, like we can actually innovate our way through. So talk to us about that space and your role in it.
Amy Simpkins: Well, first of all, I totally agree. You just gave me a huge flashback because I grew up in northwest of Detroit. Not even really rural Michigan, but kind of suburban Michigan, but we had a well, and that was actually the biggest fear about losing grid power. We’re gonna lose our water. I totally relate and you took me back to like six year old me hearing the losing water supply.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: With the same thing, Southern Sonoma Valley in a park called Schellville, now it’s called Carneros because it’s an ABA, but definitely wasn’t fancy then. And then we had regular blackouts. Regularly, our well wouldn’t work, and so I totally relate to you on that.
Amy Simpkins: Yeah. So let’s come back to the concept of micro grids. Because what we’re talking about here and where my work is sort of centered, you’ve seen large scale wind generation, like out on the plains in Iowa or Kansas, that’s another form of centralized generation. It’s great that it’s green, but you’re still moving that energy over tremendously long distances to get it to an end user, it’s not powering. When you see those turbines that are 50 or 100 megawatts each, they’re not running the farm next door, they’re moving that to the big cities, they might even leave that to Chicago or Kansas City.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Actually, I have a big one here just outside of Livermore where when you’re driving to LA, for example, you can pass huge fields of windmills. And they’re pretty spectacular for those people who’ve never seen them.
“Bring the assets closer to where they’re used, and that means a greater amount of control.” -Amy Simpkin
Amy Simpkins: And it’s so awesome to be putting more renewable generation on the grid so that you can be sure that when you’re purchasing from your utility, you’re not buying coal, or natural gas, or fossil fuel based energy. You’re buying green energy, that’s fantastic, but it doesn’t solve the centralized architecture problem. You still have to move it, and it was sort of renewables built into the grid that we have. So talking about micro grids, what that does, again, this shift from centralized architecture to distributed architecture, brings the assets closer to where they’re used. And that means a greater amount of control. Now, for some that distributed architecture just means like it could be at the city level that like, instead of your power being produced a hundred miles away or 200 miles away and you don’t know where it is, you’re like, oh, yeah, my city microgrid is out of it’s worth in Maine. Like I know where that is, it’s over there. And it’s the ground mount solar that’s just outside the city limits that supplying our energy. It could also be at the building level, it could be at a campus level. If you have a college campus or an industrial park, there could be a micro grid that could serve a small group of buildings.
But the point is, it’s nearby, it’s local so that you’re not blindly waiting for someone to restore service, you don’t have any insight into what the timeline is because it’s some worker up a pole 100 miles away, you don’t know. Also, because microgrids these days are generally incorporating renewables and the distribution architecture to use those in resilience mode when the rest of the grid is down, you can be sure that you always have some energy. Because we just finished a large micro grid for a Native American tribe up in Northern Wisconsin. And there were a lot of people who said Northern Wisconsin. In Alaska, they’re doing a lot of big wind to support the Island in micro grids, but they’re also still doing solar. It is possible even at northern latitudes, latitudes that get a lot of snow, the sun is still there. It’s not there as much as it is in Arizona in the summer, but it is still there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I went there though. Sorry to interrupt you, and when I’m thinking about this, I’m thinking the other day, I was watching a John Oliver show on Ransomware, and I was thinking about how vulnerable these huge grids are to cyber attacks. It seems like another thing we may not think about is building resilience against cyber attacks may also involve, making sure we have micro grids so that we are not as vulnerable to these huge like systems on the East Coast, they were shut down, and they could not deliver, I forgot what the name of it was, capital? I can’t remember, but we are not then subject to we’re less vulnerable to Ransomware attacks, cyber attacks essentially.
Amy Simpkins: The caveat, I would say to that is that you’re right, totally. You don’t have this, like, where half of the eastern seaboard is attached to one piece of software and it gets attacked, and then it’s down. That’s totally true. However, you then start a different cyber security problem when you have, like, everyone has their own controller. And now you have, it’s sort of like everybody has their own PC at home, used to be the PS, lived in one giant room at a university. But now, everyone has their own PC or their own MacBook, and everybody’s PC is vulnerable. You have to have your own copy of virus scan software, and you have to be diligent about updating all of that stuff. And so you’re trading a little bit for one set of capabilities.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Caveat, though. I think that’s a very fair caveat. I think that part of the struggle and working in disaster is getting people to really lean into a form of self reliance and that builds resiliency, which means we also have a level, we all have a role to play and a responsibility. I’m always a little bit amazed by places that are politically, and we don’t do politics here. Don’t worry, but more politically conservative, but then are super angry when the government doesn’t show up post disaster to do everything. It’s not that they meant it that way. It’s not that they’re bad people for thinking that way, it’s just that it can be a shock to the system to realize how reliant we are upon certain functions of government or of large scale systems that deliver our comfort and care.
Amy Simpkins: Totally, totally. And from a government perspective, again, politically, you may have heard, there’s been some attention these days on an organization that doesn’t usually get a lot of attention because they’re one of those really boring government agencies that no one knows who works there. It’s called FERC, F-E-R-C. It’s the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think I just saw something on that. Go ahead, explain that.
Amy Simpkins: They do. They manage the transfer of fuels specifically, but also energy across state lines. So if there is a pipeline that goes across multiple states, they have things to say about. There’s regulations and standards, this is so if there’s a pipeline or a high voltage power line that’s running from Minnesota into Iowa. Minnesota doesn’t use something that’s this big, and Iowa uses something that’s five inches smaller. It’s all standardized and everyone knows what the pressures are, and how to make it safe for everyone, and what the voltages are, and who’s in charge. This is what enables cross state wheeling, so you can generate your electricity in Iowa on those big wind turbines, and then you can send it to Chicago or Kansas City, which are both in other states where you need it. Well, Kansas City split, but our government structure is around this centralized architecture, this historic grid. We don’t have the organizations in place, the regulations in place. I mean, a lot of people are working really hard to say what policies should there be. If we do have more distributed architecture, how do we make sure that people stay safe, that we maximize the amount of resilience that’s created for communities, and how do we make those into regulations, laws, policies, sets of standard. That’s all being talked about, but we don’t have it yet. And it’s interesting because there’s the, I understand, you’re talking about from the disaster side having government agencies come in for relief, but there’s also a significant amount of working with the government around regulations and approaches to making sure energy is able to be supplied. And currently, nearly all of our policy is around these big centralized architectures and big transmission.
“People should have a fundamental understanding of what’s going on so that they too can be part of the decisions.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Just one quick thing, here in California, like all states, we have a public utilities commission, it’s called the CPUC here, and they insisted for decades. The energy companies in California that push all their resources towards renewables, which we are totally right on, good job. But then they also said, you may not spend a significant amount of money maintaining your really old grids. It sounds logical until you have a mega fire, like we had sparked by PG&E lines, then you have the campfire. So it seemed like a logical decision, but I do think it’s important that people do understand a political landscape and how the pressures could be all towards investing in renewables, which we need to be doing. But now, we’re also having to invest hundreds of millions of dollars maintaining a system that is totally outdated, and we’re in this weird intersection between climate change, renewables and traditional energy. And there seems to be always a lot of tension there between who’s responsible, who’s made the decisions. And we argue that people should have a fundamental understanding of what’s going on so that they too can be part of the decisions.
Amy Simpkins: Totally, totally resonating with everything you’re saying there. And let me bring that back now to micro grids to something that has been created by the massive amount of renewables that’s on the grid in California. That’s fantastic, yay, good. Renewable Energy, getting off fossil fuels is fantastic. There’s a ton of solar on your grid from a utility perspective that’s feeding into the utility grid. So what that creates is when the sun is up, the load on the system is actually very, very low even though it’s the peak of the day and people have air conditioning on because the sun is out. So you have all of this solar that is offsetting almost the entire load on the whole grid and we’re like, yes, we’re gonna get to net zero as a grid. But what happens at about 5:00 PM? And depending on the season because the sun does move. But about 5:00 PM is that not only does the sun start to go down, but people who were at work start to get home, and they kick up their conditioning, and they start to cook dinner, and they flip on devices for their kids.
Right now, I just saw this chart between about 4:00 PM in the afternoon and about 6:00 PM in the afternoon. There is a 13 gigawatts swing in demand because the sun went away so your solar generation went away. And a bunch of people want more electricity all of a sudden because they haven’t shut off any lights at the offices, all that’s still on and still running. And 13 gigawatts is huge. So all of a sudden, you’re like, ah, get the natural gas plant online, get it up, get it up, and it’s causing a grid instability issue. Okay. So does that mean we should not use renewables? No, that is not the answer to that. The answer to that is in what I do for a living, which is, solving problems, wicked problems with math and modeling. So what we do is we build a model of the system. And we say like, we look at that curve, we look at the data and match the data to what is happening. How do we explain this curve? Do we know what the cause is? And then once we know what the cause is, what if we tried this to mitigate it and we can see through a model of what’s happening. How different types of addressing that situation might help it?
Now, I don’t work very often on the utility side so I don’t do a lot of grid modeling. I definitely have partners who do that work who are very good at what they do. I do modeling of micro grids for a single building or for a small collection of buildings, and I take a look at what is the demand on that building or set of buildings. And if we were to put solar with these buildings, how would that interact with their load? Are they going to have to adjust their operating behavior at all in order to run specifically on their micro grid if the grid is down? So there are two modes for micro grids. There’s a grid connected mode that you can be using your own solar power on your roof, mostly. And then if you want to purchase some from the grid as well to supplement when you turn your microwave on or plug in your electric vehicle, whatever, you can do that. That’s grid connected mode. And then there’s Island mode. And Island mode is what we would talk about as resilience mode. That means the grid for some reason far away from you has gone down. You don’t have power that serves your facility, but you have assets on site so you can stay up, and that’s called Islanded mode or resilience mode. So those are two different operating characteristics, because there’s two different goals.
“The more complicated the rules get, the more frustrating it is for a customer. But also, the more opportunity there is to make an economic play.” -Amy Simpkins
The goal of resilience motor, Island and mode is that when you turn on the light switch, the light will go on, and the power will be there. The purpose of grid connected mode, because you could just buy from the grid, why wouldn’t you do that? It’s actually an economic justification because you’re trying to save money, you’re trying to offset high energy charges. And in California, you have some very complex rate tariffs, especially commercial buildings and industrial buildings coming down into the residential area. But with demand charges, but not just demand charges, demand charges at this time of day, and that time of day, and this time of year, and that time of year. The more complicated the rules get, the more frustrating it is for a customer. But also, the more opportunity there is to make an economic play, the computing gets more advanced. What’s the best decision I could have made with my energy assets at this moment to make or save money? That’s one of the things we do. So we work on modeling the economic benefit in grid connected mode, and we work on modeling the resilience performance. That means the duration of how long you can last before your micro grid needs to go down and recover. How long that recovery period might take for your micro grid to recover and have enough power to serve you again? And then how long can you run after that till it fails again? Those are resilience metrics. So we model that as well. Those are our kind of two areas, like high fidelity economic modeling and high fidelity resilience modeling.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I like those very much. Just to be clear, except to say the disclaimer, it’s not that we’re recommending a particular company at all, but we are really recommending that more and more people educate themselves about what it is, how are we interacting or where are the intersections in our lives with all the systems that we depend on. One of the things that you talk about, which we’re really interested in is equity. And we like to say that the three most expensive words, or I like to say, they are equity, resiliency and sustainability. So when you’re talking about equity, I love that you have gone to Northern Wisconsin, and you have a tribe, a tribal area, for example. I’m also thinking about Tam, a supervisor in Plumas County where I was last week in Greenville, and I’ve seen that we have other challenges, there are all kinds of problems in rural counties with broadband, and there are huge issues with lack of access. Lack of equity is actually not just marginalized communities that we think of traditionally, but also people who simply don’t have the capacity to come back from a natural disaster or the resiliency to sort of fend one off and communicate well. And it seems to me that say, if I’m a supervisor, I was at Supervisor Kevin Goss’s house the other day, he was defending it in Janesville. And I’m thinking, I want to put like 16 homes on a micro grid. Is that something that somebody can call a consultant like you and say, how can we microgrid out and make it economically feasible? Or are we way too early in that technology for it to be common enough to be affordable for a county that only has 15,000 people in it?
Amy Simpkins: Oh, great question. First of all, yes, that would be a great time to call. And I will say that there have in the past been some regulatory hurdles to get over the way that buildings, whether they’re residences or commercial buildings, need to be connected to the grid and need to be metered. And that sometimes can stand in the way of how they can be microgrid together. But that’s a very specific thing, you need to look at the site and see what the utility is on and all of that stuff. So it’s a very site specific thing. Totally agree with you. So energy equity has so many different flavors, like it could mean ethnic or immigrant community that lives nearby a polluting fossil fuel based plant, or a fossil fuel based plant that was put into that community. Now, the air quality is terrible, right? We see that a lot of Native American reservations are located at the ends of electrical feeders. There’s no one beyond them. So when something happens to infrastructure, they’re often the last ones to be restored on those remote feeders. But it’s not just Native Americans. We want to protect our indigenous people, of course, but a lot of the people on the ends of feeders are rural, rural farmers, ranchers. So white usual demographic. It’s not just about racial equity, although there’s a piece of that for sure.
“Just because you might serve one group doesn’t mean you’re leaving another group out. Everybody deserves a certain amount of equal access.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: One is not diminished the other. I’m trying to get people to really understand, just because you might serve one group doesn’t mean you’re leaving another group out. We’re saying everybody deserves a certain amount of equal access, wherever that’s triggered, wherever it’s triggered.
Amy Simpkins: And it’s also not a new problem that residences out on the ends of feeders and commercial operations, including farms and vineyards, and branches out on the ends of feeders actually have a lot of problems with resilience. We tried to do a project with a farm that was out on the end of their feeder, and they actually wanted to put a significant amount of their growing indoors so that they could do it year round. They were growing lettuce, tomatoes, basil, that sort of thing, and they wanted to do it inside with lights, which is very electrically intensive. And not only did the power company tell them, we just can’t supply that much power to you. But the natural gas company said, you’re on the end of our feeder too, and we just can’t supply that much natural gas to you like it just wasn’t there, like it did not exist. If they wanted to tap a new natural gas line, they were going to have to pay for it to be run like eight miles with two railroad crossings in a river, and that’s just beyond prohibitively expensive.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you actually go a little more deeply into natural gas? Because natural gas seems to be one of those amorphous areas in between the ecologically sound and what’s a very bad idea. Do you notice? It seems to me that it was touted as clean energy, but it’s actually not at the same time. So can you demystify that for our listeners?
Amy Simpkins: Sure, absolutely. Personally, I don’t demonize natural gas. You said it so well, it is way cleaner than coal. It’s way cleaner than a lot of different kinds of oil. It’s even cleaner than woody biomass, like wood chips, or trees and stuff like that, which in certain areas are viewed as a renewable energy source. But when you burn wood, even if the trees go back fast and you can create a sustainable cycle, you still cause air quality issues with burning wood.
“You have to have diversity in your systems. That will build resilience.” -Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But I want to say this, though, one of the things that we’re really intent upon is getting mild fire into all communities across the western United States instead of prohibiting it. Because we’ve been prohibiting mild fire, we’ve been under the idea that every tree is precious and we should just plant more trees and stuff, more trees in the forest. It’s exactly what’s making our first less healthy, more vulnerable to wildfire, more vulnerable to climate change, more flammable. We are looking for people to sort of drop their political sacred cows, and we want environmentalists to sit with loggers and be like, how do we actually solve this? And biochar will be one of those paths that we can use as energy, but one of the things I like about what you’re saying is you have to have diversity in your systems, and that will build resilience. I think that’s what you’re saying. Please tell me.
Amy Simpkins: No, totally, one of the native tribes that we worked with, as a tribe, they take a very holistic approach to looking at the impacts of what their choices are. And I’ve learned so much about the design process for them and holistic design. They struggle with that because they see themselves, this particular tribe sees themselves as the stewards of the forest. And one of the things about being stewards of the forest is calling when you need to call, cleaning up scraps. And they were like, it would be great to do a biomass plant with wood to solve this problem. They actually have their own air quality people who are like, oooh. So there’s no right answer here. How can we mitigate it? Can we do carbon recapture? Are there other options? Back to natural gas, I see it as sort of a similar thing that is way cleaner than coal or oil. It’s still a fossil fuel, so it’s not a renewable asset. And eventually, we’re going to run out of easy to access resources for it. However, right now, it is a better step than we had before. It’s more likely to be a decentralized generation then distributed. But sometimes, that’s not the case.
One of the use cases for natural gas I really love is called CHP, which stands for Combined Heat and Power. Basically, it means that you have a massive generator engine that’s burning natural gas to produce electricity, but then you’re capturing the heat off of that and using it to make steam, or hot water, or some other form of heat that you can then distribute and glean the heat off of it too. What we were looking at, like industrial indoor farming was a CHP based solution, and that was why we were taking a look at if they could get natural gas to the farm. It’s actually a really symbiotic relationship because not only in the winter do they need to power their lighting, they need to heat so that the plants don’t freeze. But they also buy bottled carbon dioxide to put inside the greenhouse to encourage plant growth, because plants like carbon dioxide. And so with a CHP plant, with a natural gas fired plant, you can recapture carbon dioxide and feed it to the plants.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that.
Amy Simpkins: And so total symbiotic relationship, very few emissions from the natural gas fired plants. Yeah, there’s no reason to demonize any fuel source except, I guess coal, I would probably say that would be the one that should probably not be around very much.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m actually still not being political, but really hoping that in all of this infrastructure investment, that part of that goes into retraining people who are solely dependent for their incomes and their skill sets on coal and petroleum that they can, that they have the opportunity to become part of the new greener economy, contribute to that and not be left behind. That would be a game changer for many communities across the United States. I do think why are we giving away or like the green economy to China, which is essentially what we’ve sort of given it for the last decade, and they’re just racing ahead. And a lot of the cost will come down for things like solar because they’ve made massive investments and infrastructure in other countries too. It’s a very interesting thing to watch.
Amy Simpkins: Also, like my example earlier, everyone now has a laptop and it’s their controller for their micro grid. There’s so much more opportunity for technicians, for people who need to understand these systems, how to work, how to troubleshoot them, how to fix them. Yeah, with microgrids like any kind of computer control system, there’s a certain amount of you can plug it, unplug it and plug it back in. That’s the first thing you try. But there’s definitely, I work with a woman who lives in LA and she runs a company who does operations and maintenance for electric vehicle charging stations. And that was before I met her, that was something I did not even think about. And part of her thing is workforce development. We need a cadre of people trained, and they’re not just a general licensed electrician. Because 9 times out of 10, the problem isn’t with the electricity. It’s something else that has to do with the actual charger architecture. So you have to know about the charger. That’s a new job. That’s a new green economy job.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And you don’t need to go to four years of college to learn how to do that. Like that’s not for everybody. I also like that part of it too because that’s just not an option for many people, but we need a workforce that’s absolutely trained up in, I was a high school teacher for a decade, and I used to say to my students, we are training you for jobs that don’t even exist yet so let’s look at what skills you’ll need, like critical thinking that was my wheelhouse right there. But how do you see the ground now by just starting to shift our economy away from fossil fuels, away from maintenance, away from extraction and into creation.
Amy Simpkins: First of all, that’s a beautiful thing to say. I need to write that down. But it’s not just true for technician jobs, it’s true all across the job chain. And like my story, were not my generation of energy industry workers, engineers, there wasn’t a course to take like sustainability engineering in college. And even if there was, it was one small corner of civil engineering and people were like, I don’t know what you would ever do with that. So I’m an aerospace engineer, I worked on spacecraft design, integration and operation. And what is the spacecraft, except a micro grid?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It has such a good point. I love that. Yeah.
Amy Simpkins: It has to generate its own electricity, store it, control it, distribute it. And if it breaks, you’re in really bad trouble. You can’t just send out a guy with a wrench to go fix it. My business partner is an electrical engineer, and he was trained in integrated circuit design, making computer chips. And he laughs, because when he was in school as an electrical engineer, there were a couple of power engineering courses talking about things like high voltage transmission, and the calculations behind the power flow analysis. And he laughed because he’s like, I didn’t pay attention. When was I ever going to use that?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: People who are really good at cursive, and they were just leaning fully into that. It’s hard to know at the time, though, it’s a very human response because you just don’t know. You don’t know what you don’t know.
Amy Simpkins: I think it’s a lesson to all of us to be adaptable as we evolve in the new energy economy is to say, what my partner did was, he said, look, chips require very rigorous modeling. Because when you build a computer chip, you basically send the drawing off to the fab, and they make it at the fab. And when it comes back, you can’t fix it. There’s no way to like to make a change. So you better be sure that your design was correct. And the way you do that, is that you model it. You model the heck out of it before you send that design away. And so he brought that rigor and modeling. So he happened to work at the National Renewable Energy Lab for seven years. revolutionising the way they did modeling before we joined forces, and we started this business where we work on modeling. And sort of similar with me that, like obviously, working on spacecraft is really fun, and really awesome. I had this yearning to work on something that felt even more meaningful and direct in terms of supporting the planet, a crisis of our time. I love working in energy, because to me, it’s supporting the planet in terms of green sustainable energy, and it’s also supporting people in terms of community resilience and the equity we talked about. And so like that fusion, it’s like, you can nail so many different problems at one central hub of a project, of a career of an industry with what we’re doing here. And that totally appeals to me.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that. I’m not going to make, I am curious about entering into this space. Are you seeing, you’re obviously a female in a very male dominated space, are you seeing more interest from women entering into the space of being an engineer? I’m just curious from a human perspective.
Amy Simpkins: Well, it’s interesting. Because in aerospace specifically, we had a pretty good ratio. It’s not to say it wasn’t majority male, it still was. But when I was working, corporate engineering, I definitely had a lot of women teams. In fact, one of my teams that just landed a spacecraft on the Asteroid Bennu, they called it a tag. They tagged the asteroid and picked up some rocks, and then left to bring it back to Earth. The person who designed that maneuver was a friend of mine who’s a woman, and her team was all female, actually, to design that maneuver. Now, the larger team has men on it, but it was such a moment of triumph to do that. I will say that moving into the energy industry from aerospace, I have been the only woman in the room or on the call way more often. It’s even more male dominated. And that was a thing that I started to make a list of the women that I knew. It actually hit me, it was Mother’s Day a couple of years ago where I was like, I’m gonna go to wish my colleagues a Happy Mother’s Day because I would like that. I would like my colleagues to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day so I’m gonna go to wish my colleagues. I went to make my list of mothers that I could wish Happy Mother’s Day and I was like, I think I have like three, like on my list that I could wish Happy Mother’s Day and I was like, wow. So I started to make a list of just all the women that I know, and I actually do have a pretty substantive list. I’m like, why don’t we hear from women more. There is energy at the conferences and the media, the energy media, we tend to hear the same voices all the time, and certainly the same demographic of voices. So that’s what inspired me.
I actually started my own podcast, it’s called Power Flow. And it is featuring, particularly women, but feminism is nothing if it’s not intersectional. So also other underrepresented voices, gender minorities and racial minorities in the energy industry. And it’s for that reason to demonstrate that, like, we’re here, and we have a great perspective on things. We tend to think very holistically, we tend to have technical expertise, but then also are able to also hold space for non technical issues, at the same time that we hold space for technical issues, which is a real gift and it’s a real skill. And so that’s definitely something that I’m passionate about, like bringing more diverse voices to the table, bringing more voices to the innovation whiteboard that are able to hold space for different problems at the same time.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: To be really clear, it’s not about diminishing or devaluing the contribution of men or white men in particular. It’s very much like, how can we be even better if we make more space for more points of view and more types of intelligence or values, because that’s how we’re going to actually get better in all fields. I work in a field, I run a nonprofit that’s just teeming with female leaders, so it would be great to see that intersection come more and more and more together. But I think when we see people who look like us doing jobs, and we tend to think those are the jobs that we’re supposed to do, and the more women and traditionally underrepresented communities that are shown on your podcast in your field, then you’re going to have kids, especially who look at that and be like, you know what? I could totally do that.
One day, we’ll have a female president. And then they’ll say, I think I could do that. Yeah, yeah, I like that. I’m a big fan of, I think I could do that no matter who that is. Because what I’m not a big fan of is somebody looking at something and thinking, I can’t do that. My virtue is just my gender or my ethnicity, but instead, I just want to open up things for everybody. I think too often, people just see it as a zero sum game, and then they get very panicked about that. And you’re like, not really, that’s not really the deal. And one of the other things is we’re getting a little bit of social justice. But there have always been contributions from women in engineering, or women in medicine, or women in other areas, or people who are traditionally under-recognized. Not only are they under-represented, but they’re also under-recognized. So we tend to just ignore those narratives or exclude them. I like the fact that you’re going to have this podcast, I hope that you send us the link that we can put it in there. I also want to make sure that people know that they can contact you at amysimpkins.com, we are going to put your links in the description so they can contact you directly. Because I think your point of view is innovative, interesting and important.
“A fundamental principle of innovation is that if you want more diversity of ideas and possibilities, you need to have more diverse brains in the room. That’s not a diminishment of anyone. In fact, that’s an elevation of everyone.” -Amy Simpkins
Amy Simpkins: Thank you. And the last thing here I’ll say is that, fundamentally, I’m an innovation nerd, I want to see innovation happen. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about how I see innovation happening from my chair. And a fundamental principle of innovation is that, if you want more diversity of ideas and possibilities, you need to have more diverse brains in the room. And that’s not a diminishment of anyone. In fact, that’s an elevation of everyone.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I agree.
Amy Simpkins: And there’s a problem on the other side of that is that, okay, now you have all these amazing ideas, how do you then converge on an approach? But we’re not even close.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That’s not a bad problem to have, it’s not always easy. It can be even uncomfortable. But why not just get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If we’re going to come to a better solution on the other side, if it takes some fits and starts, and uncomfortable moments, who cares? If we end up on the other side more resilient and we can live in better harmony with our environments, like we’re looking at the fact that we have to live alongside wildfire here, and that is the reality of it. We have a long, scary decade, or two or three ahead of us, but there is a different way from how we’ve been doing it. And the only way we can actually get through that is to build self reliance, but also to innovate, innovate, innovate, and people like you are going to help make that happen. I really want to thank you for being on the podcast today. I just want to ask you, is there any question that I haven’t asked or anything you want to leave our listeners with, knowing that we haven’t touched upon?
Amy Simpkins: I think the final thought here is that I know that resilience can look a lot of different ways, it can have a lot of different definitions. And for some people, it means, I just lost everything in a wildfire, how do I start again? And in other ways, it looks like, I recognize that there’s a threat out there, and that we’re going to have to live with the threat of wildfires, or earthquakes, or whatever. I’m willing to take action now to do the best I can to prepare our community for that. So keeping holding space for all of those different sorts of definitions of resilience and facets of it is important.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love it. And also holding space for the stories of resilience. KQED science did this story recently. They promoted it on Twitter. The reporter said: “Please retweet this so that my editors will know that we should do more stories about communities that were spared wildfire, because they took these particular steps.” It’s not to diminish the other communities. It’s kind of like, oh, how do you begin to do that? You’re going to have to show stories of success for us all to also puzzle over the problem together. And I also appreciate just the different types of brains like yours. I am not an engineer, but I can tell you that every time I cross the bridge, I think one. I’m not an armchair scientist either. I just have a lot of respect for the amount of training that you’ve had to go through, and the amount of education and your dedication to making the world a little bit better in your corner of it in bringing your talents.
Amy Simpkins: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure. It’s a big deal.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So thank you so much for being on the podcast, How To Disaster, this has been Amy Simpkins. Again, you can reach her through her website, which we will link in the comments, and we will see you next time.