NEWS Prof. Deborah Sunter profiled by the US Department of Energy

Deb­o­rah Sunter, Ph.D., spent two years as a post­doc­toral fel­low with the U.S. Depart­ment of Energy Office of Energy Effi­ciency and Renew­able Energy in the Post­doc­toral Research Award Pro­gram. Sunter’s research explored and expanded a mod­el­ing plat­form designed to help eval­u­ate and meet the United States’ grow­ing energy demands. Her research and con­tri­bu­tions have been rec­og­nized in the global sci­en­tific community.  

For the orig­i­nal, click here.

Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 2.43.03 PM

Sus­tain­ing our Future through Energy Security

Sixty-​​six per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion will be liv­ing in urban areas by 2050, accord­ing to the United Nations 2014 World Urban­iza­tion Prospects report. In the United States, more than 80% of the pop­u­la­tion already lives in urban areas. The con­sen­sus affirms that increased urban­iza­tion is the future. As global urban­iza­tion and pop­u­la­tion growth expand, so does energy consumption.

Energy secu­rity requires an under­stand­ing of future energy demands and the envi­ron­ments from which the demands orig­i­nate. Global pop­u­la­tion growth and rapid urban­iza­tion are being tracked, but cli­mate change throws in the wild card of uncer­tainty. Urban energy sys­tems are vul­ner­a­ble to cli­mate change and extreme weather, includ­ing storms, flood­ing and sea-​​level rise. Urban areas must be resilient to han­dle these chang­ing con­di­tions if they are to remain sus­tain­able and con­tinue to grow.

Mechan­i­cal engi­neer Deb­o­rah Sunter, Ph.D., is one of many sci­en­tists who have researched the very com­plex issue of energy security.

Every day is an adven­ture with new chal­lenges, new col­lab­o­ra­tions and new ideas,” said Sunter.

Sunter received a post­doc­toral appoint­ment in the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory (RAEL) at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. Her appoint­ment to the Post­doc­toral Research Award Pro­gram was funded by the Solar Energy Tech­nolo­gies Office of the U.S. Depart­ment of Energy (DOE), Office of Energy Effi­ciency & Renew­able Energy Research Par­tic­i­pa­tion Program.

The pres­ti­gious post­doc­toral research award sup­ports sci­en­tific research in energy effi­ciency and renew­able energy by attract­ing sci­en­tists and engi­neers to pur­sue break­through tech­nolo­gies in energy research.

Sunter spent her two-​​year appoint­ment at RAEL explor­ing the SWITCH (Solar and Wind Energy Inte­grated with Trans­mis­sion and Con­ven­tional Sources) mod­el­ing plat­form. SWITCH is used to exam­ine cost-​​effective invest­ment deci­sions for meet­ing elec­tric­ity demand, with an empha­sis on inte­grat­ing renew­able energy into the elec­tri­cal grid. Cre­ated as an invest­ment plan­ning tool, the model explores the cost and fea­si­bil­ity of future energy ini­tia­tives while simul­ta­ne­ously ensur­ing that cur­rent energy demands are met and pol­icy goals are reached at the low­est cost pos­si­ble. SWITCH meets this objec­tive by mak­ing a series of opti­mized deci­sions. For exam­ple, all power plants have an expected life­time. When a power plant reaches the end of its life expectancy, SWITCH exam­ines whether it is more cost-​​effective to upgrade the exist­ing power plant or to retire the power plant and build a new one. SWITCH can deter­mine which type of power plants should be built and where these plants should be located with the goal to pro­duce low-​​cost energy sys­tems that meet reli­a­bil­ity, per­for­mance and envi­ron­men­tal qual­ity standards.

SWITCH was orig­i­nally designed and pro­duced by Daniel Kam­men, Ph.D., and his team at the Energy and Resources Group of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. Kam­men served as Sunter’s men­tor through­out the pro­gram. Since pro­duc­ing the ini­tial papers in 2012, Kam­men and a series of grad­u­ate stu­dents and post­doc­toral fel­lows have expanded the toolkit sig­nif­i­cantly, and SWITCH con­tin­ues to undergo improve­ments at RAEL. RAEL is an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary lab­o­ra­tory founded by Kam­men in 1999; it seeks to advance renew­able and appro­pri­ate energy through tech­nol­ogy inno­va­tion and pol­icy implementation.

Sunter’s appoint­ment and access to SWITCH allowed her to research the role of tech­nol­ogy inno­va­tion and pol­icy in reduc­ing emis­sions, improv­ing effi­ciency and sup­ply­ing more renew­able energy to the U.S. elec­tri­cal grid. Dur­ing her time, Sunter expanded the SWITCH model, orig­i­nally designed for the West­ern Elec­tric­ity Coor­di­nat­ing Coun­cil, to encom­pass the entire con­ti­nen­tal United States. Sunter helped to con­vert SWITCH from an older pro­gram­ming lan­guage to Python to increase acces­si­bil­ity to the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. She also part­nered with pri­vate com­pa­nies to add new emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies to the program’s reper­toire, such as Google Project Sun­roof and Cal­Wave Power Technologies.

Sunter’s accom­plish­ments dur­ing her post­doc­toral expe­ri­ence are numer­ous. Sunter pub­lished many works with her col­leagues dur­ing her appoint­ment, most notably a high-​​impact arti­cle with Kam­men in the jour­nal Sci­ence. The arti­cle on urban energy sys­tems has received much atten­tion in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity. Sunter also cred­its her post­doc­toral expe­ri­ence for expand­ing her research horizons.

Beyond the core research project, I have been able to learn a new sub­ject area, data sci­ence, and engage with the greater sci­en­tific com­mu­nity in ways that I had not done before,” said Sunter.

Sunter used her newly learned skills to win a data sci­ence hackathon in solar energy as well as orga­nize a suc­cess­ful forum on data sci­ence for sus­tain­abil­ity. Sunter has been invited to speak on her research at more than a dozen sci­en­tific engage­ments, and she was selected to be on a team of inter­na­tional authors for a book on inclu­sive green growth met­rics. Through­out her appoint­ment, she shared her exper­tise with under­grad­u­ates at the lab.

I have been able to do more dur­ing this research expe­ri­ence than I pos­si­bly could have imag­ined. It opened doors I didn’t real­ize I had access to,” Sunter said. “This has been one of the most pro­fes­sion­ally reward­ing expe­ri­ences of my life. I am incred­i­bly grate­ful for this opportunity.”

Imme­di­ately fol­low­ing the com­ple­tion of the pro­gram, Sunter became a research fel­low at the Berke­ley Insti­tute for Data Sci­ence. Most recently, she has accepted a posi­tion as a pro­fes­sor at Tufts Uni­ver­sity in the Depart­ment of Mechan­i­cal Engi­neer­ing for the fall of 2018.

The Post­doc­toral Research Award Pro­gram is funded by the Solar Energy Tech­nolo­gies Office of the U.S. Depart­ment of Energy (DOE), Office of Energy Effi­ciency & Renew­able Energy Research Par­tic­i­pa­tion Pro­gram. The pro­gram is admin­is­tered through DOE’s Oak Ridge Insti­tute for Sci­ence and Edu­ca­tion (ORISE). ORISE is man­aged for DOE by ORAU.

Browse News

Main Menu

Energy & Resources Group
310 Barrows Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-3050
Phone: (510) 642-1640
Fax: (510) 642-1085


  • Open the Main Menu
  • People at RAEL

  • Open the Main Menu