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Adria Brooks
August 21, 2020

Power player: Solar research lit Adria Brooks’ passion for energy policy

Written By: Jason Daley

When Adria Brooks was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, a physics professor offered her the chance to help manage an experimental solar test facility near Tucson. She took on the challenge, and for four years after graduation she managed the site, designing experiments with private companies, installing and wiring the panels, and conducting tests. “That professor called me his pre-doc,” she says, “since I did everything a postdoc would do but without the PhD.”

While Brooks learned an incredible amount about the ins and outs of photovoltaics and renewable energy, her main lesson wasn’t related to solar cells or wattage. “I came to realize that the reason we didn’t have more renewables on the grid had nothing to do with the technology itself. The technology was ready to go,” she says. “It had more to do with the power system and state and federal policy.”

That epiphany led Brooks to apply to the UW-Madison Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, which combines a strong emphasis on power systems and renewable energy with inter-departmental expertise in energy analysis and policy. She began her work studying microgrids with Professor Giri Venkataramanan before moving on to analysis of power system models and electricity markets with Professor Bernard Lesieutre.

In particular, Brooks’ research focuses on frequency regulating reserves. Because the power grid needs to operate at a specific frequency, power producers must ramp their output up and down to balance out fluctuations in that frequency, known as frequency regulating reserves. However, it’s not clear how much frequency regulation grid operators really need to balance the grid and if operators are valuing the service appropriately. “It’s not well planned and it’s not well priced,” says Brooks, who defended her dissertation in August 2020. “I’m trying to understand how we could incorporate this into our power system modeling and planning.”

Brooks’ work earned her several honors during graduate school, including a Grainger Power Engineering Award, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and an internship at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, where she hopes to one day work.

For Brooks, UW-Madison was the right place to pursue her interests. Not only did she earn her PhD through ECE but she also earned a certificate in energy analysis and policy from the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. “The university is so big,” she says. “I definitely appreciate the multidisciplinary opportunities.”

Her education didn’t just happen in the classroom, however. Brooks was the co-president of the Teaching Assistants’ Association graduate labor union for two years and has worked as an engineer with Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission, doing energy transmission planning for the state and coordinating with other energy agencies across the middle of the United States.

Her next stop is Washington, D.C., where she will serve as an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow in the Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Office of Strategic Priorities. After that, she envisions a future in the public sector to help better integrate renewables into the energy grid.