Noah Rhodes hasn’t spent much time in Wisconsin during 2018.
The electrical and computer engineering senior spent most of January, 2018, in Guatemala, working on a service project for Engineers Without Borders. Then, merely four days after returning from a summer study abroad program in Copenhagen, Rhodes packed up his car and drove to Golden, Colorado, for a 16-week-long research internship at the Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, a state-of-the-art facility tucked into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
For Rhodes, the inconvenience of moving—twice—was well worth the opportunity to pursue a research project at NREL, where he works in the building and energy efficiency subgroup.
“Doing independent research has been so valuable,” says Rhodes. “The experience really helped me be confident in my decision to apply to grad school next year.”
Rhodes is no stranger to undergraduate research—he interned in the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium for a summer and spent one semester using image-processing algorithms to interpret biological images under the mentorship of Professor Rebecca Willet.
At NREL, however, Rhodes had an unprecedented chance to take the lead on his own project—with all the potential pitfalls that entails.
“I learned the value of diving in deep to find a solution,” says Rhodes, “But you also have to know when it’s time to stop.”
Rhodes worked on strategies to help buildings blend their energy sources from self-generated renewables and the conventional power grid. It’s a tricky balance: electricity from the grid comes in as alternating current, whereas solar cells and batteries provide direct current inputs.
“Renewables add a variable into the power system that hasn’t existed for the past 100 years,” says Rhodes.
Finding the balance between self-contained microgrids and the existing energy infrastructure requires a deep understanding of theoretical optimization models and real-world hardware. It’s a challenging problem, which is part of the appeal, for Rhodes.
“I enjoy working on renewable energy because the power grid is a massively complex network,” says Rhodes. “You need to understand both the whole system and the tiny details.”
Although the internship kept Rhodes busy, he found time to take full advantage of the outdoor activities Colorado has to offer. An avid cyclist, Rhodes biked a famous local route called Lookout Mountain several times per week during the early autumn. He also hiked to the summit of Mount Bierstadt and enjoyed numerous rock-climbing and camping excursions. After completing his coursework requirements in fall 2019, Rhodes plans to apply to graduate school, where he hopes to continue working on power systems and renewable energy.
“Energy is a fascinating problem,” says Rhodes, “It’s heavy theoretical math with the opportunity to make a real difference in the world.”
Author: Sam Million-Weaver