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TE Alumnus Improving American Energy Efficiency

Andrew Parker NREL

By Susan Fandel

Wilson College of Textiles alumnus Andrew Parker ‘09 works toward a more sustainable future as an engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which conducts energy efficiency research on behalf of the federal government.

According to its website, the government-owned NREL’s mission is to advance “the science and engineering of energy efficiency, sustainable transportation and renewable power technologies and provides the knowledge to integrate and optimize energy systems.” It was designated a national laboratory in 1991, but its predecessor, the Solar Energy Research Institute, was established in 1974. Its mission foci are sustainable transportation like biofuels and other vehicle technologies; renewable electricity like solar, geothermal and wind; systems integration like energy grids and battery storage; and energy productivity in commercial and residential buildings.

Parker works on the latter, building a comprehensive engineering model of the American commercial building stock. His role is multifaceted, as he is responsible not only for complex computer modeling but also business development and client management.

A native of New Bern, North Carolina, he became interested in attending the Wilson College of Textiles after a positive experience with the Summer Textile Exploration Program (STEP) during a summer in high school. He applied for and was offered a Centennial Scholarship.

“The combination of a great scholarship, world-class textile engineering program and other advantages of a large university ultimately led me to attend NC State,” he said.

He took additional classes through the Entrepreneurship program, working on a project conceptualizing a building to house entrepreneurship students and a prototyping lab. His team researched design options, sparking his interest in the field. He found career options limited upon graduation due to the recession, so he decided to pursue a master’s degree in engineering — but discovered he needed to take a few mechanical engineering classes first.  

At the same time, he spoke about his dream to work on energy efficient buildings with Dr. Russell Gorga, who connected him with a local mechanical engineer working on energy efficient buildings in North Carolina. While catching up on his mechanical engineering classes, he worked for the engineer as an unpaid intern, tasked with computer simulation of energy efficient building designs and the inspection of buildings under construction.

He applied for a position at NREL in the Commercial Buildings Research Group once he completed the internship and mechanical engineering classes. He did not immediately hear back, so he began work on a master’s degree in Architectural Engineering at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.

“Toward the end of my first semester of graduate school I was offered the job at NREL, so I quit graduate school and took the job,” he said. “At NREL, I was immediately able to provide value to the team using the practical engineering skills and computer programming skills I learned in school. I’d say the biggest advantage of the Textile Engineering program (at the NC State Wilson College of Textiles) is the breadth of learning and the focus on practical problem solving. This is necessary because of the breadth of job responsibilities a textile engineer might have in the workplace, but it positions us well in many engineering fields.”

The best part of the job is working on something that is having a tangible positive impact on the world.

What is the big picture overview of NREL and your job there?

Buildings use 40 percent of the energy in the United States. There are a lot of opportunities to make these buildings use energy more efficiently, which has all kinds of benefits (financial, environmental, energy security, etc.). Because buildings are unique, complex and expensive, you can’t build prototypes and test them. You need another way to evaluate building designs ahead of time. I work on team that develops software to simulate buildings, which architects and engineers use to evaluate different building designs. My role on the team is bridging the gap between the architect and engineer users and the software development team. I also do a lot of client relationship management and business development.

What is a typical day like?

I work on a software team of about 15 people. A typical day starts with a quick standup meeting where everyone reviews the status of their work and identifies areas where there are issues that the broader team needs to help resolve. Then I’d spend a few hours on technical work, writing and testing software to simulate a building design. After that, I might have a meeting with a large gas or electric utility client who is interested in using our software and advise them on how our software could address their problems. I might finish off the day with a web meeting coordinating our work plan for the upcoming year with researchers at other national labs or in other countries.

What are the best parts of your job?

The best part of the job is working on something that is having a tangible positive impact on the world. Denver is in the middle of an enormous construction boom. Many of the buildings being built in Denver right now are designed using the software that I work on, and are 20 to 30 percent more efficient than typical buildings as a result. Driving around and seeing the evidence that your work matters is satisfying.

What are some challenges?

Working at a national lab there are is always some level of tension between working on basic, foundational research and working on market-ready things that benefit the U.S. today. Finding the right balance can be tricky.

What are you working on that excites you right now?

One project I’m excited about right now is developing a model of the entire building stock in the U.S. Using this model, we could test different energy savings upgrades across the entire country and identify areas where these upgrades make the most economic sense and have the biggest impact. This work is challenging because it requires hundreds of thousands of computer simulations. Another big part of the project is figuring out how to present the results of the analysis in a way that policymakers and average people can understand and act on.

What do you do in your spare time? What’s life like in Denver?

During the winter I like to snowboard and work on house projects. During the summer I like to get out into the beautiful rocky mountains to backpack and mountain bike. I also enjoy going to City Park Jazz to drink beer and listen to music with friends. In May, my wife Lisa (Klodnicki, also a Wilson College of Textiles alumna) and I had our first child, a daughter named Penny, so now free time involves a lot more story time and walks through the neighborhood.