Published: June 13, 2023 By

Majeau cycling with the CU Boulder Triathlon Team.Majeau cycling with the CU Boulder Triathlon team.

Electrical engineering PhD student Fiona Majeau has earned a competitive 2023 Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship (DOE CSGF) for her promising research in electric grid modeling and simulation.

The fellowship provides full tuition and fees, an annual $45,000 academic stipend and an annual professional development allowance renewable up to four years, as well as a three-month practicum at one of 21 U.S. DOE laboratories. Majeau will attend a program review in Washington, D.C. every summer to collaborate with fellows, alumni and DOE staff. This year, the DOE awarded only 39 fellowships to PhD students across the nation.   

We sat down with Majeau to share some thoughts on her educational journey and how her research could impact the electric grid of the future. 

Where did your academic journey begin and how did you choose to study engineering?

I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. I started off in environmental engineering because I liked math and science and was motivated by climate change, but I eventually switched to mechanical engineering. I found that I enjoyed the challenge of designing and building functional products and the process of solving problems systematically. I particularly loved thermodynamics, which is the subfield I focused on for my master’s degree. I learned how to model the thermodynamic cycles that are used today to heat homes, refrigerate food and generate the majority of the world’s electricity. I have since found new excitement in electrical engineering, but this experience is what made me realize the critical role that energy infrastructure plays in combating climate change. 

What experiences have been important in your professional journey? 

Before coming to CU, I worked for five years in the electricity sector at a firm specializing in wholesale electricity market investments. This experience ended up shaping my interests significantly, expanding my focus beyond how electricity is generated toward the electric grid itself. Though I had been motivated by the threat of climate change for most of my education, it was at this job that I developed a genuine optimism that decarbonization of the electric grid was possible in my lifetime. This is what motivated me to go back to school and pursue a PhD in electrical engineering. 

What made you decide to pursue your PhD at CU Boulder?

After five years in industry (and some pandemic-driven self-reflection), I started feeling a strong pull to shape a career that would more directly contribute to the decarbonization of our energy systems. I knew that the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) was at the forefront of electric grid research, so I began my search in Colorado. I chose to work with Professor Bri-Mathias Hodge, whose joint appointment with NREL offers invaluable opportunities to collaborate with NREL researchers. His lab group focuses on technical barriers to decarbonizing the electric grid, with a recent focus on enabling high penetrations of inverter-based resources, like solar and wind.

Can you describe your research area within electrical engineering?

My general research area is power systems, a subfield of electrical engineering that focuses on the modeling and simulation of electric grids. Most electric grids are huge networks of power plants, transmission lines and other equipment that exist to provide electricity to customers. The vast scale of these networks and the critical role they play in society means that researchers cannot just turn them off to run at-scale experiments. To ensure that electricity demand can be met in a range of potential scenarios, grid operators and researchers use computational models to simulate the steady state and dynamic behavior of the grid. My research will focus on how to simulate the dynamic behavior of electric grids with increasing levels of renewable technologies like wind and solar.

What is taking place in our current electric grid that your research hopes to explain? 

In an effort to curb global warming, countries are looking for ways to reduce carbon emissions. Decarbonizing the electricity sector will likely be the most realistic near-term option in many communities. New solar and wind plants are now cheaper than other non-renewable options, and they are gradually replacing carbon-emitting technologies like coal and gas.

Despite the maturity and low cost of these renewable technologies, there are still many unanswered research questions about how to operate a grid with large percentages of wind and solar. These technologies are unique because they connect to the grid using electronic devices called inverters. The dynamic behavior of these inverter-based resources is significantly more complex than the dynamic behavior of traditional turbine-based resources, which are still used to generate the majority of the world’s electricity. 

Modeling the dynamic behavior of generators is important because it predicts whether the grid can provide uninterrupted electricity service after experiencing a disturbance. The differences between inverter-based and turbine-based dynamics are so significant that the observed behavior of grids with high shares of wind and solar is beginning to deviate from simulated behavior. My research will explore how to adapt dynamic grid simulations to adequately represent complex inverter dynamics while still remaining computationally feasible for real-world applications. 

What do you hope your research will accomplish? 

Even though renewable technologies are expanding rapidly, they still make up a relatively small percentage of total electricity generation. Ultimately, I hope my research will play a part in society’s ability to fully decarbonize the electricity sector.

What does this fellowship mean to you? 

This fellowship provides me with the intellectual freedom to work on the questions I am most interested in exploring. Coming from industry, I do not have the academic research experience that many other fellows have, so it is very meaningful to have been selected for this experience.  

It is also an incredible opportunity to expand my community beyond CU Boulder to include the other fellows, alumni of the program and researchers from the DOE national labs. The opportunity for collaborative work is a big reason I decided to go back into academia, so I am particularly excited to join a team at a DOE national lab for my 12-week practicum.  From everything I’ve seen so far, the program coordinators are supportive, organized and intentional about building a tight-knit community, and I am grateful to be a part of that. 

What has been your favorite part about working with your advisors? 

I have been lucky to have two very supportive academic advisors who are serious about their role as mentors. They provide practical and honest advice while still giving me space to make my own decisions. 

My master's advisor at Stanford, Dr. Chris Edwards, told me that a PhD should not be another mountain to climb, but rather an intentional choice to spend five years of your life pursuing a problem you care about. That advice helped me decide to go into industry after my master’s degree and helped me again, five years later, as I began to reconsider academia.  

My current advisor, Dr. Bri-Mathias Hodge, has similarly been nothing but an advocate for me and my career. While his expertise in this field is invaluable, the emphasis he places on clear communication, student well-being and my broader career goals are what made me particularly motivated to join his lab. He has established a collaborative, diverse and respectful lab environment and that matters to me.

What’s next after you finish your PhD? 

I hope to continue collaborating with people who are excited about solving hard, interesting problems. I would also like to have some element of teaching or mentoring in my next role. I was a TA at Stanford and found that I really enjoyed the challenge of explaining concepts clearly, being a resource for students and being in an environment where everyone was motivated to learn. Right now, I can imagine working as a researcher in a national lab, staying in academia by pursuing the faculty route or even returning to industry. I am keeping my options open and hope to gain more clarity throughout the next few years of my PhD. 

Any hobbies you like to pursue while you’re not researching? 

This year I joined the CU Boulder Triathlon Team. It was a really fun way to find community outside of academics and to stay grounded during stressful parts of the school year. I swam competitively for most of my life, so it was fun to get back into an organized sport with a  less intense mindset. Swimming was a very big part of my experience and support system at Stanford, so it wasn’t surprising that joining the triathlon team helped me stay sane during the first crazy year of grad school. Now that the sun is finally out, I am spending a lot of time riding my bike in preparation for a six-day ride in the Rocky Mountains this June.