Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s Noël Bakhtian discusses obstacles and opportunities for America’s clean energy future.

6 Questions with Berkeley Lab's Noël Bakhtian

Sep 23, 2021

by Chitra Sethi

Noël Bakhtian is the founding executive director of the Berkeley Lab Energy Storage Center. Bakhtian previously had served as director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies at Idaho National Laboratory and as a senior policy adviser for environment and energy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She earned her engineering doctorate at Stanford University’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, received master’s degrees from Stanford and the University of Cambridge, and completed her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and physics at Duke University.
Q1: As the inaugural executive director of the Berkeley Lab Energy Storage Center, what are your goals?
Noël Bakhtian: Energy storage is truly one of the silver bullets to our nation’s transition to a clean, affordable, and resilient energy future. It’s absolutely an honor to be standing up this center to harness, guide, and galvanize the world-class expertise, capabilities, and innovation across Berkeley Lab in order to accelerate real-world energy storage solutions based on our energy storage science, technology, and policy work that dates back to the 1950s.

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Q2: How was it like working as a senior policy adviser at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy?
N.B: It was humbling being surrounded by brilliant people and challenged with the hardest problems facing our country, as well as working incredibly hard to support the American people. I think everyone should spend time serving in government. Especially at OSTP, which is one of the offices in the Executive Office of the President, the coordination role for maximum impact is very important, and the scale of information coming in and number of players contributing across the agencies is immense. It requires lots of listening and communication, building strategy and dreaming big, and not giving up when you get a “no.”

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Q3: What’s something that policymakers don’t get about science and engineering?
N.B: I have found that the concepts of data uncertainty and error, which are deeply ingrained in the scientific and engineering communities, are sometimes misunderstood by the public and policymakers because of the negative connotation those words have in everyday English, with an implication that the information is not correct. I tell folks all the time that one of the most important skills for a scientist or engineer to have is the ability to communicate their work to a layperson—having your elevator speech down is crucial. One of my favorite memories from my work in the Senate was when I was asked to learn how nuclear power plants work within a few hours and then explain it to a senator within just a few minutes, for an important decision they needed to make. Albert Einstein has a famous quote, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” 

Q4. What are some of the obstacles and opportunities for America’s clean energy future?
N.B: One of the major challenges is the enormous scale of deployment of batteries and other energy storage technologies in the coming decades. As an example, global energy storage installations have the potential to increase exponentially to 2.9 TWh by 2040, which is a more-than 160-fold increase in stationary storage from 2018. That puts a strain on our materials, supply chains, and workforce. But there is also a huge opportunity in rethinking energy storage—batteries, in particular—from resource to recharge. Re-visioning everything from the electrochemistries in play to creating a “science of manufacturing” to accelerating discovery-to-market using AI.

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Q5. Can wind and solar replace fossil fuels, which currently account for 80% of the nation’s energy needs?
N.B: Absolutely! The current administration is working to do just that with its 2035 target for a power sector free of carbon emissions and a 2050 target for a carbon net-zero economy. That’s the reason I choose to work in energy storage right now—it’s one of the major enabling technologies that will allow us to get to high-penetration renewables on the electrical grid, and is transforming the transportation sector which is fossil-heavy.

Q6: Do you have any career advice for young engineering students?
N.B: Don’t be afraid to be the first person to raise your hand. Keep asking the hard questions, no matter how silly they might seem and take a seat at the table. Talk to people just to learn about their paths and experiences. Apply to jobs and opportunities even if you don’t fit 100 percent of the requirements. If you get a “no,” ask why and keep trying to find a creative solution to the outcome you are looking for. Surround yourself by people who are smarter than you and with a diversity of life experiences.

Chitra Sethi is executive editor, media.

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