Energy systems engineering putting humanity in data

14th December 2022

What will increasing numbers of women in data mean for renewable energy solutions? 

Amy Anderson, Energy Systems Engineer, Altelium

In a data-driven future it is critical that those analysing, interpreting, and acting on the insights it brings reflect the diversity of communities it represents or risk inherent bias in impact.  The energy problem we face is no different, and the inclusion of female decision-makers with differing perspectives on the human impact of our collective actions is critical. 

This may be seen as a bold statement to make – and whilst I don’t wish to reinforce gender stereotypes or speak in absolute terms – it’s certainly worth looking at trends which can (and do) impact the ways in which we collect and analyse data, especially when applied to global issues such as the energy crisis. 

Although in a heavily male-dominated engineering department at university, it may surprise you to read that our group is well represented by women. On my own PhD course – a very heavy data science machine-learning artificial intelligence (AI) topic with a particular focus on mathematics – a majority of the researchers are women. 

This still feels unusual in the STEM sector, and it’s worth pointing out that these women are all young, early-career researchers or students. At the higher levels, as we might expect, that female representation has not come through yet, and for many reasons around disengagement of women in STEM we need to take care to ensure it does. 

The impact of gender on data 

Many writers, broadcasters and scientists have described battery energy storage as the bridge to a clean energy future – and as the world struggles to regain control of multiple energy crises, the need to engage with new technologies, and the data behind them, is becoming increasingly apparent.   

Fundamentally, it’s the analysis and application of data which will allow batteries to fuel our future – and as more women are working in this field than ever before it’s worth considering whether this impacts the insights we have at our disposal. 

I was asked recently if I thought there was a gender difference relating to participation in clean energy research; and whether there’s a difference in the way men and women might approach data collection for clean energy. Certainly, I see highly motivated driven female academics who, broadly speaking, take a strong interest in the human sides of the energy problem.  

Clearly, the global energy crisis is going to be supported with technical solutions, but we must remember we are trying to engineer outcomes that actually work for the humans that need to deal with them.  I would observe that regardless of gender there should be more of an interest in how these solutions are designed for people – and in so doing greater emphasis placed on how wellbeing is protected in the implementation of clean energy technologies.  

This human interest and empathy informs the way I analyse, draw conclusions, and present findings. 

I was working in the space industry when I first began encountering data-type problems.  My last role was managing battery and power systems for satellites.  This could be high-pressure in the run-up to a launch campaign, where testing data for verification of performance is highly valued, and again in-orbit where you need to figure out a problem with limited visibility and access.  There is no opportunity to send someone up to take a look.  When I joined the space industry this was more obviously a male-dominated sector, although that too is changing rapidly. 

For me it was always the feeling that there was more to know. Within one of my first satellite missions, we had the data for a particular battery product, but there was always a tendency to take the data at face value without looking deeper at how the results gain could support more complex insights and improvements for the next generation of systems. 

I find my role fun from a problem-solving standpoint – it’s like being a detective, trying to find out what’s gone wrong with a bit of hardware, or why something does not perform in the way we’d expect. With data, some might feel that the numbers are enough to show what’s happening, but when we put it together in wider analysis and context, it becomes so much more interesting.   

I don’t think this is a solely female attribute, but I have seen differences in how my male contemporaries approached the data insights from the products we designed. 

For myself, I am drawn to the step beyond the first order impact. In such situations I always focussed on trying to get to the root of the problem when things went wrong, in contrast to others who were satisfied in finding and remedying some immediate cause and effect. 

Diversity unlocks innovation 

I think we all know that representation is important in making sure our communities, industries and economies include a range of different viewpoints.  This is especially true when it comes to complex problem solving given the leaps in logic may be more subject to differing mindsets. It stands to reason that by having a more empathetic viewpoint, diverse teams will be driven to look for answers that aren’t ‘just’ the best mathematical solution, or the optimal technical solution, but consider human requirements and constraints. 

While innovation is one of the key drivers in clean energy research, many studies show that it’s diversity in teams that really unlocks that innovation. In my opinion, gender and culturally-diverse research groups and data teams are going to achieve the most valuable results in the context of true, progressive innovation.  

Given that we’re dealing with very complex problems as we support the growth of battery energy storage for the transition to renewable energy, we’re not dealing with mathematic equations where we can produce a neat, correct answer. Under constantly evolving circumstances we are always trying to do our best with the data we have – and ensuring we include those additional viewpoints is important to avoid ‘tunnel vision’ when problem solving. 

Moving forward, we should remember that there is still a gender imbalance in shaping the research agenda which comes back to the lack of senior representation. Researchers with 10-20+ years’ experience in the field will be the people responsible for defining the research at the highest level.  To deliver greater diversity and balance in perspectives into the future we need to ensure that our systems do not bias against or favour particular backgrounds or lifestyle choices.  Too often, poorly designed support systems in the workplace can unintentionally disadvantage or disengage a particular demographic group. 

In the current climate we can see numerous energy-related problems in the news relating to the cost-of-living crisis, the cost of energy and the conflict in Ukraine. Among the current generation of senior researchers there might be more awareness of these issues framed in a traditional research context, but at times the human urgency may be overlooked. 

It therefore requires dialogue from a team with as broad a range of perspectives as possible. But Wiwith a more people-focused perspective, research could be steered towards offering more relevant solutions to the problems we face. 

Women at Altelium 

As the team at Altelium grows, gender representation is going to be important. I’m currently working alongside Judith Elgie, Head of Data Science, and our differing backgrounds and perspectives has already proved to be a productive and stimulating professional partnership yielding new valuable insights.  Working with a diverse team provides insights into how risk is presented across different perspectives and adds further to the mix of viewpoints we have in the team. 

Altelium is building a diverse team, and this will have a hugely beneficial result in research, development, and innovation around battery data. While I am currently supporting Judith with the data science side of things, I’m able to provide additional contextual insight into the engineering element of the work as well.  

I have a data science skillset, but I’ve also got a strong background in the battery hardware engineering: in design, manufacture, test and through life support. Being able to link these worlds and bridging the gap between abstracted data and the low level electronics, circuit design or chemistry will be beneficial for Altelium.  

There is definite value in building a team that includes a range of perspectives and skills – and highlighting the advantages that women bring to data, as much as any other cultural, educational or experience perspective shouldn’t be disregarded.  When diverse teams bring a range of strengths to the table, this is when we can affect the maximum impact.