“How do we talk about all the great things we’re doing in our communities, in optimizing and trying to reduce carbon, and looking at new solutions and coming up with different technologies that can help advance to help keep prices down and keep reliability up. We’re really spoiled at times in the US with how often we have our power. I’ve had to travel on all seven continents and had times where I didn’t have power because the grid was down in other countries.” Dr. Noel Schulz

In this episode of Hack the Plant,  Dr. Noel Schulz of Washington State University joins us to talk about  innovations within the power industry. We discuss how our power systems (which we often take for granted) work, how to keep them secure, and innovations around the world in power supply. We also tackle the challenges of creating more diversity in harnessing carbon-neutral power sources…and the analogous issues of diversity and inclusion in industry.

How can we increase access to reliable power while reducing our carbon footprint? Who

Join us as we discuss these questions, and more.

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Transcript:

Joshua Corman: 

Our dependence on connected technology is growing faster than our ability to secure it, especially in areas affecting public safety and human life.

Bryson Bort: 

I’m Bryson Bort. And this is Hack the Plant. Electricity, finance, transportation, our water supply. We take these critical infrastructure systems for granted, but they’re all becoming increasingly dependent on the internet to function. Every day I ask and look for answers to the questions. Does our connectivity leave us more vulnerable to attacks by our enemies? I’m a senior fellow at the R street Institute and the co-founder of the nonprofit ICS Village, educating people on critical infrastructure security with hands-on examples, not just nerd stuff. I founded GRIMM in 2013, a consultancy that works the front lines of these problems every day for clients all over the world.

[SPEAKER]: 

It’s playing out in Israel right now where hackers have been going after Israeli water systems. Again, not to steal information from them, to change the setting on the chemicals in Israeli water.

Bryson Bort: 

Each month, I’m going to walk you through my world of hackers, insiders, and government working on the front lines of cybersecurity and public safety to protect the systems you rely upon every day.

[SPEAKER]: 

If you think that the small town water authorities and the mom-and-pop-sized companies have better cybersecurity in the US than the Israelis do, I have really really bad news for you.

Bryson Bort: 

An attack on our critical infrastructure, the degradation to the point that they can no longer support us means that we go back to the stone age literally overnight.

[SPEAKER]: 

If we think the government’s going to solve it for us, we’re wrong. We have to help them.

Bryson Bort: 

This is not a podcast for the faint of heart. If you want to meet those protecting the world and what problems keep them up at night, then this is the podcast for you.

I’m Bryson Bort and this is Hack the Plant.

For today’s episode, I’m joined by Dr. Noel Schulz of Washington State University. She is the first First Lady and the Edmund O. Schweitzer III Chair in Power Apparatus and Systems in the WSU School of Electrical Engineering.

A nationally recognized expert in power systems, Dr Schulz joins us today to talk about innovations within the power industry. One of these is a partnership between WSU, India, and the US Department of Energy, bringing power to underserved populations.

Noel Schulz:

And we’re looking at how do we add solar? How do we add wind? How will electric vehicles impact it? Also, how do we look at storage, batteries on the system, to help make sure we stay reliable power as well as resilience, so we can survive a storm and have power come back on. And so in that particular project, we have 15 partners in the US and 15 in India, and we’re doing activities in the US, where we’re looking at modifying existing distribution systems.

But one of the really exciting things we’re doing in India is we’re actually powering a village and we’re actually providing a microgrid for that village that will provide power for them more during the day, so they’re able to use solar cells. They’re also able to use a bio-digester with some of the animal manure to help provide energy and electricity to their village during the day, where they don’t have power right now.

Bryson Bort:

We discuss the unexpected benefits and challenges of creating more diversity in harnessing carbon-neutral power sources…and the analogous issues of diversity and inclusion in industry.

Noel Schulz:

The US is a very diverse country, as far as its resources, whether it’s solar, wind, water, hydro, we’re fortunate in the Pacific Northwest to have a lot of hydro. So that diversity means one size doesn’t fit all. We have to find solutions in different parts of the US, because when we talk about renewable energy and moving towards a carbon neutral grid, there’s not one solution that will work everywhere.

So I think that’s one important aspect. The other aspect that I’ve spent a lot of time in my career is looking at how do we create an opportunity for access to engineering for folks across the board? And whether that’s underrepresented minorities as well as women, and how do we make sure as we create teams, the most diverse team is one that creates people with lots of different experiences, and that can be age, ethnicity, racial, gender, all those different aspects.

And as you optimize a system, having a team that has many different experiences is really going to give you the optimal set of solutions than if you have people that have the exact same experience, they’re not going to have as broad a domain to look at.

Bryson Bort:

Join us as we discuss key opportunities and threats to our power distribution systems.  What are critical cybersecurity challenges presented by increasingly internet-connected physical power systems? Where are key opportunities for increasing access – both to reliable power and to the engineering and cybersecurity professions? What is at stake here?

Bryson Bort:

Noel, can you tell us a little bit about your career, please?

Noel Schulz:

Sure. I grew up in Virginia. I am the daughter of a university professor and an elementary education teacher, and I really liked math and science along the way. So I decided to go into electrical engineering and my dad was as an electrical engineering professor, got into computer engineering after some time. So, I say I’m a faculty brat. Over time, I got interested in a lot of different aspects of electrical engineering, did my Master’s in micro electronics.

And then for my PhD, I started looking at computer applications in power systems. So I’m part of a two-body problem or two-body opportunity.

I met my husband as an undergraduate. We were undergraduates and he’s a chemical engineer and we both wanted to be faculty. So over time, we’ve had a chance to try to find two jobs in locations where we could live together. In our early career, we had to find two faculty positions at a university that provided opportunities for both of us. And then as we have advanced and moved, we’ve continued to try to find two positions. So the two-body problem are basically dual career challenges that we see along the way, trying to, in today’s environment, where both people can find opportunities for them to excel.  We’ve moved around and I’ve taught at six different US universities across the country. I’m now at Washington State University Pullman, where I teach electrical engineering. And I really enjoy the opportunity to work with industry and electrical engineering, lots of different fields, but particularly in power engineering. You have electric utilities everywhere, so it’s really a chance to give students some hands-on experience related to power engineering, related to what’s happening out there. And an exciting time right now to be part of power engineering.

Bryson Bort:

So with power engineering, that is giving you an opportunity to see both the academic side and in some ways, cybersecurity is almost the applied academic side when we look at it from an operator perspective. Can you talk to the cultural divide and the challenges that we have with the convergence of traditional computing in the power sector?

Noel Schulz:

Yeah. So it’s really interesting to see the challenges we have today of the cyber physical interaction, where we’re interacting with computers and our power grid, and how do we work together in those two disciplines? I think one of the challenges is as we look at people in the power field, they may not have a lot of background in the computing, communications, some of the cybersecurity areas, and at the same time, those that are working in cybersecurity may not be as familiar with industrial controls, some of the different aspects of power engineering.

And the fact that we’re really 24/7, you can’t bring down the system for upgrades at a certain time, so we really have to work together. And that’s one of the things I’m working with is to try to get our students to cross that divide, to get some experience, whether it’s computer science students getting some more experience in power systems and the application of cybersecurity and power, or it’s power students getting some experience about networking and cybersecurity and those challenges that are there. That’s really an area where we need people to bridge the gap and be able to talk to folks on both sides. What are the challenges and opportunities to work together?

Bryson Bort:

Can you give some specific examples of how those students are crossing that divide?

Noel Schulz:

We’re working on programs that provide both… and I’ll say the domain expertise, where it would be say, power engineering, but they’re also getting a minor or certificate in the computer science or cyber space. We also see this as we look at data analytics and artificial intelligence and machine learning, where students are starting in power engineering to see those applications in some of the analysis we do.

And so this, the power students can get additional expertise in those cases. Also, we’re seeing them do internships with companies that are also implementing some of these applications. And I think if it’s really important for a student to see the cybersecurity challenges that might be out there in a industry that they don’t think about necessarily at a university campus.

At the same time, we’re also trying to offer classes for those in the computer science space, whether it’s cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics on some of our problems in the power space. And how do we come up with solutions that work together? And talk about how we model things, and how they can help us use algorithms they may have used in other applications.

Bryson Bort:

And how have you seen that translate into real world application? Do you have any visibility on your students once they go into the workforce?

Noel Schulz:

Yes. I think a lot of the students are seeing the importance of some of their computer science classes, electrical engineers, that they’ve taken and extended themselves. Most of the students, my Master’s and PhD students really have great opportunities in career jobs, as well as the undergraduates, if they have some of that experience related to the cyber physical interaction. So that’s helped them find jobs.

They’ve also, I think, been able to excel in their jobs because they can bridge that gap. So they’re able to work on one side or the other, so it gives them some different opportunities in their career than someone that’s just in power or just maybe in cybersecurity.

Bryson Bort:

What additional things would you like to see for a solution on education to better the workforce?

Noel Schulz:

Well, I think there are a couple different, there’s some technical areas I can talk about. And then I really see an importance in diversity of a team. One of the things as we talk about first, the workforce, I think it’s important for us to encourage students to look across… A lot of the problems today are on the boundaries of different areas, or the boundaries of what I’ll call traditional departments or units at universities.

And as we see industry really moving quickly, we’re seeing a lot of opportunities for us to have what I will call virtual groups that pull together people from different areas. And for instance, I work with Pacific Northwest National Lab, PNNL in Richland, Washington. And they do work. When they do projects, they do the matrix approach where they take people from different parts of the lab to work.

So they take someone with cybersecurity experience, someone with power experience, maybe someone in other areas, and they create a team and universities, a lot of our projects and activities tend to be within one curricula, like only in electrical engineering. So I would like to see us continue to make sure that we are pulling together folks from different disciplines that can work together to A, give our students exposure to those different areas, but B, also be working on those problems on the edge of the challenges that we see. And that’s really I think one of the things we need to do.

The other thing is, as we look at cybersecurity across, that’s really something that we need probably to teach all students about in general, are some of the challenges of cybersecurity, some of the opportunities, no matter what field they’re in, in engineering, understanding that computer physical nature is really important.

So I think that’s one important aspect. The other aspect that I’ve spent a lot of time in my career is looking at how do we create an opportunity for access to engineering for folks across the board? And whether that’s underrepresented minorities as well as women, and how do we make sure as we create teams, the most diverse team is one that creates people with lots of different experiences, and that can be age, ethnicity, racial, gender, all those different aspects.

And as you optimize a system, having a team that has many different experiences is really going to give you the optimal set of solutions than if you have people that have the exact same experience, they’re not going to have as broad a domain to look at. So I really would like to see us in the electrical engineering space, as well as computer science, make sure we’re providing opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities to have career options as we move into the future.

Bryson Bort:

What else can we do to support the challenge with diversity?

Noel Schulz:

I think diversity challenges are across the board. One of the avenues I think is really important is having male allies. I think that’s really important, that sometimes people see a woman in engineering event and think, “Well, it’s only for women,” but really it’s for all of us to find ways to help support. People see things differently.

And even this generation, my children are in their late 20s and early 30s, and they see things differently than the way I see things. So this generation really wants to help save the planet, find solutions, so we need to make sure as engineering educators, we talk about the solutions first or the why behind what we do, and then talk about the equations. And sometimes, faculty really love the equations and background, and we forget about why we’re doing things.

So I think it’s really important, A, for students to see someone that looks like them in different places. So having people in leadership, having those students in front of them, that they say, “Hey, that person did it. I can too.” That’s really important. The other thing I think is important that I encourage our alumni is to talk about a failure and how you got through it.

We have about 30% first generation students at Washington State University. So a student doesn’t really have a family member that can help reflect about the college experience. And so when they run into the first time they’d get a bad grade, they’re like, “Well, maybe I’m not good enough.” So it’s really important for us to let students know that we have failures too, and we get through those. And I encourage our alumni to share their failures and how they got through theirs, so students see that they also had challenges along the way.

Bryson Bort:

Pivoting from the academic side with education, can you talk about some of the technical projects that you’ve been working on?

Noel Schulz:

Sure. One of the really exciting projects we’re working on in Washington State University is leading… is a project with India and the US Department of Energy, as well as the government of India, Department of Science and Technology are funding a project to look at how do we advance the distribution part of the power system, which is to your house, the last part of the grid.

And we’re looking at how do we add solar? How do we add wind? How will electric vehicles impact it? Also, how do we look at storage, batteries on the system, to help make sure we stay reliable power as well as resilience, so we can survive a storm and have power come back on. And so in that particular project, we have 15 partners in the US and 15 in India, and we’re doing activities in the US, where we’re looking at modifying existing distribution systems.

But one of the really exciting things we’re doing in India is we’re actually powering a village and we’re actually providing a microgrid for that village that will provide power for them more during the day, so they’re able to use solar cells. They’re also able to use a bio-digester with some of the animal manure to help provide energy and electricity to their village during the day, where they don’t have power right now.

Bryson Bort:

When I think about what we’ve learned with microgrid, your project reminds me a lot of the same comparison to the wireless telecommunications projects in undeveloped countries, or developing countries, where you have the advancements without having the infrastructure already in place to take advantage of it. Can you talk about that with what you’ve learned from deploying the microgrid in India versus our more traditional power infrastructure here in the United States?

Noel Schulz:

Yeah. Bryson, that’s a great point and something we bring up a lot of times when we talk about microgrid in developing areas. One of the things when you think about… When I’ve traveled to Ethiopia or Africa, India, places that may not have reliable power, but they have cell phones and they’re able to skip the technology of the landlines that some of us had. But what we’re seeing is, as we look at some rural areas where it’s going to be a long time before the transmission lines are going to come to that area, but electricity really helps with a way of life.

It helps with health, as well as education and other opportunities. It’s important for us to find some solutions. So that’s where the microgrid comes in. And it also can be rural places are hard to get to, where you can have solar cells. You can use different materials that are available in that area to create power that enables folks to have light without… and even be able to cook without burning wood or some other oils and things in the area that can create air problems, that then create health problems.

So it really is an opportunity for us to look at how do we go to certain areas that don’t have access to transmission lines, the bigger lines, and provide power for them that enables students… for the young kids to read at night. It enables people to do a craft at night, because the lights are on. It enables them to have, as I said earlier, less smoke that might be pollution from some of the ways they use lanterns or oil lanterns or things like that, for light and for fire. So it really gives them an opportunity to advance themselves as well as charging their cell phones.

One of the interesting things in a village in India that was electrified was a cell phone charger is really important, because a lot of the farmers use their cell phones for crops. They use messaging, text messages basically to sell their crops, but sometimes, you have to walk five miles to charge your cell phone. So just being able to have batteries that provide some light with LED lights, and charging your cell phone can be very instrumental in helping get them connected and have a chance to be able to sell their goods as well as other opportunities with both learning as well as crafts and other aspects of their lives.

Bryson Bort:

Are there any other lessons that you’ve learned from this project?

Noel Schulz:

I think one of the other interesting things for this project and you were talking about helping students is having our US students see some of the challenges in India and how they’re different and having the Indian students see some of the challenges related to the US. As you mentioned, one of our challenges in the US is we’re taking a system that’s already developed for the most part and trying to teach an old dog new tricks, trying to look at our power grid was designed in a certain way.

And now, we’re trying to change that paradigm on how we’re designing it, to be able to be a microgrid in times where we may need that, both if it’s an economic advantage, or if it’s for resiliency, like after a storm, or if there’s an outage and we don’t have power coming from the main grid. So we’re having to think differently and in India, because we’re doing the microgrid from the ground up, you have very different perspectives.

So trying to marry those two ideas of taking the grid that exists, and updating it versus building a brand new microgrid, it really creates a lot of different thought processes and opportunities to look at why we do things the way we do, and it’s also been interesting to see, we have a social impact part of our project, to see how people react to energy and react to solar energy, their interactions with electric utilities and the trust factors that are there, looking across the board.

And that’s really different in different parts of the US. And that’s another really interesting part as we talk about the grid, is the US is a very diverse country, as far as its resources, whether it’s solar, wind, water, hydro, we’re fortunate in the Pacific Northwest to have a lot of hydro. So that diversity means one size doesn’t fit all. We have to find solutions in different parts of the US, because when we talk about renewable energy and moving towards a carbon neutral grid, there’s not one solution that will work everywhere.

Bryson Bort:

That’s really interesting, actually. That’s not something we often think about is the diversity of the power sources based on what’s available.

Noel Schulz:

Yeah, it’s something you obviously see when you’re working on a microgrid in a country that doesn’t have power, where you’re looking at what’s available locally, whether it’s solar or wind, or hydro, or even as I mentioned, animal waste can be used in a lot of cases for either gas production or also to create electricity. But as you look in the US and the Pacific Northwest, we’re fortunate to have hydro, we have wind, but solar, we have solar, but the efficiencies aren’t as great as if you look in the Southwestern part of the US, you have a lot more efficiencies around solar and opportunities there.How do we talk about all the great things we’re doing in our communities, in optimizing and trying to reduce carbon, and looking at new solutions and coming up with different technologies that can help advance to help keep prices down and keep reliability up. We’re really spoiled at times in the US with how often we have our power.

I’ve had to travel on all seven continents and had times where I didn’t have power because the grid was down in other countries. I think that would be one thing, is how do we communicate better to the public the impact of what we do as power engineers.

So we have to continue to look at that and how do we work together? But in addition to the sources, and one of the things that really relates to cybersecurity is how do we optimize those systems, and those algorithms that we’re using, and those communications and computational systems that sit on top of our grid to interact with those systems? And then how do we keep those safe, related to the cybersecurity and make sure that there’s not a threat related, whether a human threat or a computer threat, related to our grids?

Bryson Bort:

All right. Onto the really big questions. If you could wave a magic air-gapped wand, what is one thing you would change?

Noel Schulz:

I think one of the things I would like to see us do is help engineers. This is my activity right now, is help engineers be able to communicate with the public even better, engineers and scientists. We do a great job, particularly with our grad students, of teaching them how to communicate to other professionals. But I would really like to see how we could get engineers to communicate with the public, like about our impact.

And that’s one of the things I see with power engineers is unfortunately most of the time, power engineers are only in the media when there’s a challenge. And I really would like to see us be able to talk about the good things we’re doing, the impacts we’re having, and the positive times. And I think that’s going to be a culture shift for our engineers, is power in the power industries.

Bryson Bort:

Well, I think you have two challenges there. One, engineers talking about what’s going well, or what they’re doing to begin with. And then the second is them doing it in a way that anybody else understands.

Noel Schulz:

Yeah. No, I think you’re right. And one of the things we’re really working on, and something you see, which is a national trend, is how do we help engineers talk to fifth graders? I think it’s important as we look at our legislators quite often, they don’t have a technical background. As we look at our regulators that we’re working with with electric utilities, lawmakers, they don’t necessarily have a technical background.

So we need to be able to communicate these topics in a way that help people understand the opportunities and the challenges that are ahead. And as we look at right now, legislators across the country in both states and the federal level are encouraging us to have a carbon neutral environment related to electricity. But at the same time, we’re also talking about taking electric vehicles and putting them on the grid.

We’re talking about electrifying a lot of things, systems, and the technology’s not there today to do all those things. So we really need… We talk about a moonshot, but we need a power grid shot, for the carbon-free area, is how do we really pull people together and try to figure out these solutions? Because right now, we don’t have some of those solutions to get to the timeframes that are being encouraged. And that’s really going to take us all getting together, but it’s also going to take us to talk to legislators and others to understand what the issues are, and how they can help support us to make those solutions.

Bryson Bort:

All right, you’ve waved your magic wand. Now, looking into the crystal ball for a five-year prediction, one good thing and one bad thing that you think is going to happen.

Noel Schulz:

I think one good thing that is going to happen is I think the ability for us to work from home or work virtually that we’ve learned in the pandemic is really going to enable us to pull teams together across the world to solve some of these problems. I think things where, well, that person’s in this country or that country, we can’t work together, or part of our team is in DC, and part of our team is on the West Coast. We can’t work together. So I really think we’re going to see that the virtual nature that we’ve learned over the last two years because of the pandemic will enable a workforce that can be much more versatile, much more diverse as far as experiences that we can pull together to solve some of these problems.

And particularly, as we look at the workforce of tomorrow is going to have more dual career, where both people are working, and they may be set in a location where one of the partners can’t leave. So you want that expertise. And we’re already seeing that in cases where two and a half, three years ago, you would’ve never let virtual work, where now we’re seeing ways to do that, to get the right team members as part of the company to help move it forward.

So I really think that’s going to be something in five years that we’re going to see, we’re going to look back and say, “Wow, because of the pandemic and because we learned how to do this, we were able to solve some problems that we might not have been able to solve before.”

In five years, I think the challenge is going to be the fact that the systems, most people understand one system, but we’re going to have a system of systems. And that complexity is going to make it very challenging to find solutions. And I think the cyber physical interaction is a great example of that. If we talked 10 years ago, we didn’t really worry about the computer science side that much, we used computers to run algorithms to optimize or control.

But now, when we’re looking at communications, as we’re looking at electric vehicles being part, we’re talking about possibly a green hydrogen, and how that would be. All these systems where we talk about energy, whether it’s electricity, whether it’s natural gas, all these systems are going to… it just creates a very complex issue where one change can cause… If we change for instance, and adding saying, “Let’s add vehicles to the electric grid,” well, that sounds really good, but that means we have to find enough generation to generate the electrons that are needed for all that charging.

We also need to make sure we can level out the charging so that not everybody’s trying to charge at one time, and that creates a blackout or issues with the power grid. So I think in five years, one of the challenges will be finding people that can study the system of systems, that are working together when we talk about our energy solutions across the US and world.

Bryson Bort:

So we continue along the line of the exponentially increasing complexity of a system of systems environment, plus the butterfly effect?

Noel Schulz:

Yes, yes. And those are the challenges of the unintended consequences of… we were talking recently to somebody about… I don’t remember the current one. But we were talking about when biofuels were trying to use corn for the fuel base, but then that impacted other aspects of corn related to feed stock as well as human consumption. And as we look at different solutions, there are other impacts and understanding those is really important.

I think that really goes back Bryson, to the idea of engineers working with social scientists to understand because engineers think a certain way, but all the public doesn’t necessarily think that way, so how do we make sure we’re working with social scientists to look at how society will see some of the things we’re proposing and work on making sure we’re messaging those solutions to help society understand the positives and the challenges, and how do we work together on that? And that’s another area that we continue.

Obviously, communication is one part of that, but understanding the social impact and acceptance of the technologies we talk about, and the activities we do is really important because the students don’t necessarily, they’re very focused on the engineering solutions, not necessarily the social impact and aspects of that. So that’s something we really want to do.

I just think it’s an exciting time right now to be in the power and energy space. There’s a lot of need for folks across the board, whether it’s computer science, power engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, as we look at these solutions, it really is going to take a team effort across the board for us to get to the carbon neutral perspectives that we’re trying to get. And there’s really not as I said earlier, one size fits all.

It’s really going to be we’re going to have to look at a bunch of different solutions for different parts of the US and different parts of the world. So I think it’s an exciting time and it’s not my father’s power engineering, and I think the students can look at opportunities and careers in this area where no matter what area they are in engineering, there are opportunities in the power and energy space.

Bryson Bort:

All right, that’s a wrap.