Public Relations and Me
The latest and greatest press release about batteries! A press release on the falling price of solar cells! An article on the brave new world of offshore wind!
People share these releases with me on social media, send them to my Gmail address, and have other ways to be sure that I see them. In some cases, they finish their communications with a question such as “Are you going to revise your book now?”
These comments are evidence of the prevalence of writing about the “Could” grid. People have a hard time finding out much about the actual grid, but information on breakthroughs is the backbone of the usual energy reporting. It’s all about the “Could” grid. Better reporting is available in books, trade journals, some places on the internet, and the Wall Street Journal. But you have to seek out this material. Meanwhile, the “Could” grid appears in every Sunday newspaper.
So of course, people will send me information about the “Could” grid. My general response is that “I don’t have time to educate everybody. I need time to write.” I generally ignore this correspondence. But the other day, one of the “Are you going to revise your book now” comments got to me. I had the madly egotistical mental response, “Does this person KNOW who he is talking to?”
Alas, he doesn’t. And it is my fault that people don’t know much about me. They don’t know because, when discussing my background, I usually talk about Me as a Chemist, or Me as a Pioneering Woman (one of the first women project managers at EPRI).
Today, I am going to talk about Me as an Evaluator of Energy Research.
Energy Research and Me
I was a project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute. What does a project manager at EPRI do? We evaluate and direct energy research. We look for areas that will “pay off” and other areas where we will choose not to invest research funds. The first thing I need to say is that these decisions are a team sport. It’s not “me,” it’s the team. When evaluating a proposed project area, or putting together a Request for Proposal for a new area, there are meetings. The chemist (me) reviews potential materials problems, while the economist (not me) does projections on costs. Consultants may be hired. Discussions ensue. It is a team effort.
However, when you get right down to it, even as part of a team, I was responsible for many aspects of research evaluation. I need to write about that part of my background. Because people don’t know about it.
First of all, the team has to be methodical. It cannot accept breathless plans as “sure to work.” All research groups have a limited amount of money, and they need to put that money where it will be most effective. And (shocking) there is a certain amount of politics, even in this high-minded endeavor. Let me give you an example.
Geothermal Energy in New Mexico and California
When I was in the geothermal group at EPRI, Los Alamos National Lab wanted our group to contribute to their Hot Dry Rock project. Los Alamos National Lab wanted our group to join them in co-funding this project. This was not because EPRI had so much money. Compared to a national lab, the geothermal group at EPRI was a shoestring operation! But we were well respected. If we joined the project, this would have been a powerful endorsement.
We visited, reviewed papers, and looked at other areas of mineral chemistry. Due Diligence, that was us! And EPRI decided not to join it. The mineral chemistry of HOT rock and water was difficult. Intractable. At least, that was our opinion.
In contrast, we did invest in the Heber binary cycle project, but that would be a whole other blog post. It did not turn out to be cost-effective, but (looking back) it was worth investing in. Or maybe it wasn’t. Hindsight is perfect, of course.
I don’t want to make this into a hugely long blog post, so I will just mention that I was also involved in evaluating the geopressured zones (geothermal group), various water chemistries for secondary side water for PWR plants (nuclear group), methods for preventing stress corrosion cracking in tubes near the tube sheet in PWRs, test comparisons between Alloy 600 and Alloy 690 (all nuclear group). There’s more, lots more, I had a long career. I won’t bore you with it.
I was always part of a team. Being part of a team means taking your part seriously. We all knew that money and research dollars and future technologies depended on our choices, and we made them as thoughtfully as we could. We did our best. We felt pressures to join projects, and pressures to not-join projects.
We were always aware that we could be wrong.
Research and PR
This is a more personal post than I usually write. Too much about me. But I felt I had to write it.
The problem is that many people don’t know that thoughtful professionals spend time evaluating the latest-and-greatest thing. And those professionals get into a habit of thought that could be described as “Show Me the Data.” Don’t show me a projection. Don’t talk down to me. Don’t assume I won’t ask you hard questions.
I have been in groups that made hard choices. I am still in such groups, but they are informal now. I have a list of experts, and I consult them. Sometimes I can’t name them (if they work for a big company) but they are there for me.
I have been thinking about “what is my next book?” I’m not sure.. But I do know that a possible title is “Could is a Four-Letter Word.” And “Breakthrough” is a public relations word.
Post Script: Travel and Research
I have to tell you, I loved visiting Los Alamos. That is some of the most gorgeous high desert that exists on this earth. I think heaven might look a lot like the Jemez Mountains. If we had chosen our research projects on the basis of travel destinations, Hot Dry Rock at Los Alamos would have been a winner.
Instead, we spent our time in the Imperial Valley with the Heber Project. The Imperial Valley is below sea level: it is fiercely hot. It’s a terrific place for growing truck crops. It wasn’t much fun to visit the Imperial Valley.
But I did learn the history of the Salton Sea, and learned about The Winning of Barbara Worth. The book is partially based on the engineering catastrophe which led to the flood that created the Salton Sea. I believe the movie is available on YouTube.
The illustration for this post is a film poster from Wikipedia.