NREL internship shapes student’s interest in building sciences

Before the start of her sophomore year, Kristi Maisha joined other Vanderbilt students and faculty on a trip to Sterling Ranch, a mixed-use development south of Denver. The trip included a tour of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in nearby Golden, Co., hosted by a civil engineering alumna who is an NREL research scientist.

Kim Trenbath, BE’00, was delighted to show a group from her alma mater around one of the nation’s epicenters for research and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficient technologies. For Maisha, the tour was short, too short.

Brief, but serendipitous. Maisha applied for and received a highly coveted internship at NREL. Last summer, she worked remotely for Trenbath’s group, the Plug and Process Loads Technology Research Team. Trenbath is lead for systems technology research and development in the Buildings and Thermal Sciences Center.

Kristi Maisha

It went so well Trenbath kept Maisha on and she worked virtually for NREL throughout this academic year. Maisha also has received an internship for the upcoming summer and will take on a cost analysis of sensors and controls.

“I now know more about the direction of energy efficient buildings, some of the challenges in technology implementation, and the skills needed for research and communication,” said Maisha, a civil and environmental engineering junior from Nashville. “To work within a team with people so accomplished has been amazing.”

She led the development of several public-facing resources that were published last summer, including guides for assessing and reducing plug-and-process loads, or PPLs, in commercial and retail buildings. She co-authored a blog post and also produced a fact sheet for businesses on smart outlets, which was released in March.

PPLs may not be as headline-grabbing as solar panels or geothermal power but they account for nearly half of commercial building energy use and represent a huge source of potential energy reduction and improved building efficiency. They are defined as all plug-in and hardwired loads not associated with heating, ventilating, and air conditioning, lighting, water heating, or other major equipment needed for basic building operation.

“They have a really huge impact,” Maisha said. “It is a very big percent of energy use and hard to tackle. There have been great advancements in strategies and controls that turn off equipment when it is not in use but there is resistance to changing behavior. Building owners and operators are used to having a lot of control.”

PPLs include all plug-in equipment and appliances, as well as processes for computing, communication, cooking, and internal transportation such as elevators and escalators. Refrigerators, laundry facilities, warehouse conveyor belts, space heaters and fans, audio visual equipment fall in this usage category as well.

Kim Trenbath, BE’00

“These are unique because they are very diverse and strategies for controlling their energy use are still being developed,” said Trenbath, who received her PhD in atmospheric science from the University of Colorado and is an adjunct professor at Colorado School of Mines.

Still, the field changes quickly and NREL’s existing resource guides needed major updates. “It was a team effort, and Kristi took the lead, updating all the data,” Trenbath said.

“She is a key team member of our team and the value she brought to the table meant we continued her internship into the school year,” she said.

During this time, Maisha updated two additional public-facing resources—lists of utility company incentives for plug-and-process loads and HVAC equipment—and led the development of a smart outlet resource. “Plug Load Efficiency Utility Incentives” is available now; the HVAC and smart outlet resources have not yet been published.

The work is funded by the Department of Energy’s building technologies office, which wants to see market transforming technology for energy efficiency and grid interactive buildings. Maisha also got direct experience with the grant and funding process, supporting Trenbath on evaluating calls for funding opportunities, analysis and proposal evaluation.

“A great intern for me is someone who can work independently and has the instinct to research things on their own,” Trenbath said. “They have to be ready to struggle, have to be ready to tackle questions they’ve never had to before.”

Maisha checked all the boxes. And NREL checked all of hers.

“Coming into college, I knew I valued civil engineering as a discipline that has such a significant impact in connecting the built and natural environment and incorporating sustainability, but my work at NREL has allowed me to hone my specific interests in green buildings and find an area where I can best apply my skills and have an impact,” said Maisha, who is considering graduate school for a PhD in architecture with a focus on building sciences.

“My NREL internship was an unexpected addition to my college experience, but it has been so important in shaping my interests within civil engineering and my future plans.”