Avis Petersen is a professional engineer with over a decade of coast-to-coast experience across the energy industry. She has worked on a number of solar and wind installations, including working with remote franchisees in Kampala Uganda to empower communities to install and maintain their own solar panels. From large to small-scale, Avis has worked on projects across the pipeline; in her current position as Project Manager at S&C Electric Canada Ltd., she’s drawing upon her extensive experience to help manage one of the first community microgrid projects in Canada, the North Bay Community Energy Park Project.
From the snowy peaks in British Columbia to the shores on the Atlantic in Nova Scotia, Canada is immense and beautiful, coast to coast. From pristine wilderness to busy cities, Canada is home to diverse landscapes and communities. For Avis Petersen, having grown up on a farm in the province of Alberta, the land’s natural beauty is something she has carried with her forward through her academics as well as her career. When Avis attended the University of Alberta to study engineering, she knew two things: she was excited to continue her pursuit of her high school passion in math and physics, and that she didn’t want to be in oil and gas, which are traditionally known to be large and successful industries in Western Canada. When we asked why she made that decision, especially so early on, Avis explained, “growing up on a farm and close to nature, you come to know and recognize its beauty; and when I looked at the tar sands, how it changes the landscape, I just knew: this isn’t the way it’s supposed to look. It trades a short-term benefit for long-term destruction; I knew I had to stick to my values,”, something she’s kept with to this day.
In university, Avis studied nanotechnology in solar energy as an emerging tech, then moved on to electrical engineering. She worked in nuclear energy, but as time went on, she realized she would eventually have to leave Alberta to continue her pursuit in clean tech. So when an opportunity arose in Montreal to work in wind energy, she left Alberta to pursue a career with Enercon for the next 5 years; there, she learned about large-scale renewable project development. After that, she did her Masters in Vancouver, and finally wound up in Toronto, working with S&C Electric Canada Ltd. (S&C), where she is currently working on a pilot microgrid project called the North Bay Community Energy Park, a partnered effort with North Bay Hydro.
Microgrids are relatively new developments, and refer to a specific kind of electricity generation development. Microgrids, which are generally connected to the large-scale electricity generation system, localize generation on-site and can generate electricity and/or heat independent of the grid, depending on the situation. With the increasing costs associated with distribution, and in the interest of building a more resilient electricity system, S&C sees a great deal of potential for microgrid development in the future, and wants to be at the forefront of the industry. From the outset, taking on the microgrid project at S&C was a very different experience for Avis compared to traditional large-scale development. Partnering with North Bay Hydro, which is a smaller utility, means working within a small business culture; and in Avis’ experience, means a smaller team that is dedicated and focused on achieving a common goal.
We asked Avis to talk a little more about the differences between large-scale and small-scale energy developments. She explained that it was surprisingly more complex, and cumulatively quite complicated to build out kilowatt (small) vs. multi-megawatt (large) projects. Without a prescriptive process, fitting the pieces together means working closely with a number of stakeholders that all have their own processes, regulations, and company cultures. Further, there’s a more direct relationship between generator and consumer: in the North Bay Project, Avis explains that the microgrid project is a balancing act between the resource (in this case, solar irradiance for solar panels) and the consumer, which includes a major hockey arena with a unique electricity demand that generates heavy loads during certain periods of the year. Furthermore, working closely with the utility, microgrid controllers, building owners, and maintenance crews means pulling together a very different kind of group to build the project. As a result, Avis feels there’s a sense of community ownership, with local people taking interest in electricity generation, how it works, and what it means for ratepayers at a micro level.
With increasing questions around resiliency, flexibility, and high costs, microgrid projects provide an exciting opportunity for communities to take more control over their power generation. In Avis’ personal experience, she’s seen a growing interest in electricity, with people wanting more say in how things happen. This is a radically different model from the traditional North American experience, with large centralized plants feeding electricity to communities hundreds of kilometers away. For the community of North Bay, the microgrid project provides local and economic benefits, but also means the creating a sanctuary for the town – the Memorial Gardens and the Aquatic Centre will behave as an emergency center, such as during extreme weather events, generating its own power separate from the grid.
Furthermore, sourcing construction and maintenance of the grid locally means empowering communities to fix their own powerlines “in-house” – which means more resilient grids, and a better quality of life for small towns all across Canada. It also brings relief to large-scale utilities who can then reduce their time maintaining remote powerlines. Finally, an important component of the microgrid project is outreach and education – community members can see the actual parts, ask questions about it, and engage with it directly. In the coming decades, these microgrids will incorporate community members to take active part in their generation, as well as providing the resiliency they need in times of emergency.
With her experience working at the different scales, we asked Avis about the coming decades for energy generation. Small-scale projects like microgrids may not be enticing the way traditional large-scale generation can be – at smaller scales and complex processes, the current way for microgrids isn’t compatible with the traditional short-term large-scale model. But a shift to microgrids is a fundamentally-different way to “do” energy – can we adapt? Avis mentioned disruptors like Tesla, who are at the forefront of innovation, who simply focus on proving how something new can work. With working models, there’s an improved potential for a subtle change to the cultural and value mindset to electricity and how we interact with it. Instead of simply modifying some parts of our traditional large-scale centralized grid, microgrids have the potential to introduce an entirely new model by diversifying, and moving to a multi-pronged model instead, making space for both large-scale projects, as well as empowering communities to be both generators and consumers.
Avis noted one of the biggest challenges will rely on utilities to build a framework for this new model. Both large and small-scale utilities see this as an opportunity for growth, while S&C envisions continued and future partnerships in this area. There is both risk and opportunity in being one of the first microgrid developers; for S&C, it’s the right step to take to invest in the future – by ironing out the challenges early on and assessing lessons learned, each new microgrid can move faster and help solidify a working Canadian framework to integrate tomorrow’s technology.
Bringing the conversation back to her personal experiences, we asked Avis to talk a little about being a woman in STEM, and how its shaped her career. She’s enthusiastic about the role she personally plays on a day-to-day basis, about being part of the visible shift of creating a new workplace dynamic. Avis understands that diversity in the workplace brings diversity of thought, which means restarting the learning mindset in workplaces that may have done things one way for decades before being exposed to new ideas. With her unique first name, Avis explains that people often default to “Mr. Petersen”; so she can certainly appreciate that being a visible woman helps people to step back and think about their natural processes and assumptions.
Avis knows the women of the previous generation have set the stage for women today, and she’s optimistic that the gender lines that have traditionally kept women out of STEM jobs like engineering are fading, with more women entering both academics and the workforce in these fields. For Avis personally, she was never told engineering was unusual, or that it would somehow be more difficult as a woman. She was excited about it, so she pursued it – she was never told not to. This is why she believes that a push for improving diversity in the workplace begins at the younger stages; exposing girls in junior high and high school to women in the industry is a good way to set a visible standard about what spaces are available to women across the sector.
Finally, Avis offered some words of advice to new professionals looking to enter the industry: get involved in community and professional groups, attend networking events like WiRE’s monthly meet-ups, and always keep an eye out for interesting events happening around you. The key is to engage people who share your interests, and increase your exposure to new ideas and areas of the industry that may be unfamiliar. You want to find out what’s interesting to you – the industry is incredibly diverse, and you can pursue a number of careers and interests in the field. Furthermore, a lot of renewable energy companies are relatively small, so it’s important to find the right group of people that you work well with. There’s a larger focus on the team and the fit because it’s smaller.
And be supportive of your colleagues and friends: invite them along! It helps increase exposure, participation, and growth in the industry, and can make these events a more fun and rewarding experience.
By Jennifer Ng, WiRE Volunteer