JPM: What did you study at Princeton? What did you do outside of class? What was your senior thesis about?
JS: I earned a M. Eng degree in Electrical Engineering at Princeton. I focused on digital technology courses, including AI by Prof Schapire, Green Information Technology by Prof Martonosi, Trustworthy Computing by Prof Lee, Information Retrieval by Prof LaPaugh, Digital Communications by Prof Verdu, and Innovating Across Technology by Prof Singh.
JPM: What is your current job title?
JS: Right now I'm a Principal partner in the Energy & Utilities Practice at West Monroe Partners. I focus on Smart Grid technologies within the practice and help utility clients leverage vast amounts of information to optimize their networks, from connecting more substations via modern telecommunication networks to leveraging smart meter data to decrease costs and improve customer experience. In particular, much of my current work is focused on incorporating Distributed Energy Resources (DER) such as solar, wind, and energy storage into the grid. With recent policy changes in New York State that mandate inclusion of Non-Wire Alternatives (NWA) that can defer or avoid altogether transmission and distribution (T&D) system investments, utilities work with partners such as us to perform cost-benefit analysis of various proposals. For example, imagine if a particular town has a peak a couple times a year that the current infrastructure cannot meet. Instead of building another substation or distribution capacity, service providers could aggregate demand response (DR) to opportunistically reduce thermostat settings in that area to eliminate the need for that infrastructure, install solar if coincident with the peak, or even a battery.
JPM: Tell us about the day-to-day for your job?
JS: Day-to-day working with clients involves navigating multiple facets and how they play together - from the pace of technology, policy and regulation, economic analysis, and budget constraints. For example, utilities often have an incentive to make capital/infrastructure investments that they can get a guaranteed rate of return on from ratepayers versus operation and maintenance (O&M) expenses (think about building your own cellular network and making a guaranteed return for your investors versus paying the monthly cell phone bill to AT&T or Verizon). The final aspect is people - knowing who to contact on the leadership chain and when is crucial to success to make things happen.
JPM: What has your overall career path been like? Why did you make specific pivots/switches in your career?
JS: I started out of Princeton with my dream job at GE Global Research in their Controls, Electronics, and Signal Processing (CESP) organization. I had the privilege of working on demand response approaches incorporating machine learning for electric vehicle charging, working on thermal energy storage technologies that could shift gigawatts of consumption under the right electricity rate structures, and model-based controls for wind turbines to lower the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCoE).
Working at a big firm is great to gain experience, but it can often takes years or decades to move up the chain. I moved after GE Research to a Shanghai-based company starting up operations in the US called Envision Energy as one of the first few technical employees. I loved working in an international environment, managing a collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) on wind farm control research as well as strategic management of Intellectual Property (IP) risk. I learned I really loved the strategic aspect of my position in terms of impact potential, and was a bit concerned from the recent change in political landscape on remaining solely focused on wind and mitigating climate change. I looked for a position closer to home that kept me focused on advancing energy independence in a more diversified, strategic role, and here I am.
JPM: In what ways did Princeton prepare you for what you are doing after graduation?
JS: We live in a digital world that's only to get more connected as information is monetized. The digital courses I took at Princeton helped to create a foundation for those aspects, especially Artificial Intelligence by Prof Schapire. Green Information Technology is probably the closest course to my current position, as the course involved navigating the boundaries between technology constraints, costs, sustainability, and policy for data center design. High-Tech Entrepreneurship by Prof Zschau always enforced us to have everything in writing to mitigate a mess later on. I cannot express how much I've seen deals and even careers fall apart over terms that had been verbally agreed and never confirmed in writing because of a cordial relationship that then fell apart. If you don't have something in writing, you don't have it.
As for what Princeton did not prepare me for post-graduation, none of my courses were really in energy. Keeping up to pace with the industry for the position you want post-graduation is key, and I'd suggest leveraging all the IEEE and other subscriptions you have while still in school - those will be dearly missed.
JPM: What is the most surprising thing about energy that you have learned about since graduation?
JS: For engineers, the thrill behind advancing technologies is often a key motivator. The energy industry however is buried by policy and regulation that really makes transformational impact difficult by those on the outside even with great ideas. For example, as mentioned earlier, the way utilities earn their rate of return biases against alternative investments such as energy storage if they're not otherwise incentivized to do so. Being involved and cognizant of the more messy side of things in the policy and regulatory world is important.
JPM: Is there anything in energy that currently excites you?
JS: Policy and technology is changing slowly to enable proper valuation of assets and costs on the grid. With smart meters, consumers can be charged closer to the actual cost to deliver energy to their home based on grid and generation constraints. With policy changes, energy storage, demand response, and distributed generation technologies can be fairly compensated for the services they provide to mitigate infrastructure upgrades. This is going to open up huge opportunities for new ideas on the market that will help lower the cost of energy for us all while helping increase renewable energy penetration. For example, instead of charging my electric vehicle during the evening when I get home, if I'm being charged little to nothing after 3 AM, I could program my car to wait until then without any lifestyle impact while avoiding an expensive, polluting fossil fuel based peaker from otherwise coming on.
Shameless Self Plug: Some of my personal research right now is focused on the potential of blockchain and distributed computing to transform the grid by strategically *increasing* energy consumption based on circuit constraints (Kirchoff's Laws for the ELEs) to allow for overall increased renewable energy penetration (http://www.freepatentsonline.com/20170285720.pdf). Depending on policy changes and market interest, this could lead to a startup...
JPM: Do you have a recommendation/tidbit of advice for current students?
JS: I took the lowest offer I had out of Princeton for a job. My friends called me crazy at the time with the student debt I had, but not anymore. If you're passionate about energy - or anything else - my recommendation is to stick to it and express your passion during the interview process - don't hide it. In my Princeton admission essay, I wrote about wanting to make an impact on energy independence and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. I ask myself every job I apply for whether I'm adhering to that - very few can say they have stuck to that.
Having been to one of the best schools in the world, you probably won't have to worry financially if you work hard and play your cards right - use that privilege to make an impact and pursue your passions now while you're more independent versus later in life. Be extremely picky about your first job and always focus on your external brand to advance your passion - from conferences to publications.