Hope Corsair: Amplifying the societal impact of new technologies

When Hope Corsair’s new colleagues at Oak Ridge National Laboratory ask her about her area of expertise, she tells them it’s “context.” Her goal as an energy economist is to make sure ORNL’s breakthroughs have the widest possible impact on society by looking at all the variables, including affordability and accessibility.

Corsair describes her work in the Electrification and Energy Infrastructures Division as sitting at the cross section of social sciences and engineering. Her undergraduate degree reflected what would become a multidisciplinary career path — she earned a bachelor’s degree in fundamental sciences with specialization in mechanical engineering, environmental science and technical communications from Lehigh University.

She then spent several years working for electric utility consulting firms, creating integrated resource plans, and modeling and analyzing the technical and economic characteristics of various generation assets. Corsair also worked at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory as a research assistant helping analyze hybrid renewable energy systems.

“Even before going on to grad school, I was on this trajectory of taking a more holistic view of technology,” she said. “It’s not just ‘how do we make a better solar panel’ — it’s also ‘how do we make one that people can afford and will use?’ and then, ‘how do we make it something that fits well into the electric grid and encourages adoption?’”

Her industry experience sharpened an interest in infrastructure improvements with the widest positive impact, with an emphasis on making them economically viable and accessible for a variety of applications.

It’s essential to know how a breakthrough fits in technologically, Corsair said, but it’s also important to know how it fits in economically and sociologically. Understanding the environmental justice aspect of technology gives researchers an opportunity to bring many considerations to their designs. “What can be adopted equitably and affordably? And what kind of incentives might that require, if any?” are some questions an energy economist can bring to the table, she said.

Integrating renewables into the grid: Hydropower impacts

One aspect of Corsair’s work at ORNL is at the intersection of the grid and hydropower, including analyzing how decisions to dispatch hydropower affect other water uses, such as irrigation, flood control, recreation and environmental services.

The value of hydropower to a decarbonized grid is high, as the projects provide critical energy storage and power flow control to offset the impacts of increased renewable generation such as wind and solar.  Pumped storage hydropower is the largest source of energy storage in the nation, representing 93% of utility-scale storage capacity. Nearly 1.5 gigawatts of hydropower is under development, according to ORNL’s latest Hydropower Market Report, with 70% of that coming from retrofitting non-powered dams and another 25% from capacity additions at existing powered dams.

“If we are going to decarbonize the economy, hydroelectricity is going to play a hugely critical role in that as we move away from fossil resources for the power grid,” Corsair said. Bringing knowledge to the development of new hydropower involves many variables, including impacts on shipping and boating, fish populations and tribal rights.