Kate Cavanagh is working at the forefront of how we can best integrate more renewable energy into our electricity grid.
Energy touches everyone. It’s relevant to everyone. I get excited about my job because I really think I am contributing to accelerating the energy transition – and making the world a better place. I help people understand energy, save money and create less emissions.”
So how did Kate get into this field? And what are her tips for women and girls entering the energy arena?
Researching Alzheimer’s and alternative energy
“I don’t know anyone whose career path has been linear,” Kate laughs.
After starting in biomedical science, Kate switched to a pure chemistry science degree. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Physiology.
“I always wanted to work in the biomed and pharmaceutical area,” she says.
In 2010, Kate joined Team CSIRO as a synthetic organic chemist. She worked on drug design and synthesis in our Melbourne labs, with the aim of treating Alzheimer’s disease, “an incredibly interesting role,” she says.
Then in 2011, she moved to Newcastle and changed sectors entirely. Kate began her first role with the CSIRO’s Energy division.
“When I started I did not know what a kilowatt hour was,” she says.
But she skilled up quickly on the job, and studied a Master of Engineering Science while working. Her chemistry undergraduate study also helped her understand the battery and energy storage space.
“My advice to women and girls is don’t be afraid to ask questions. Early on, as a female in a male-dominated area, I didn’t have the confidence,” Kate says.
“But I asked questions – that’s what I did really well. I’d say: ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about – you need to explain that to me.’ That allowed me to gain the domain knowledge faster.”
Leadership in the energy transition
For the past 10 years, Kate has worked in our Energy Systems research program. This group is an authority on energy efficient systems, and the integration of renewable energy into the Australian electricity grid.
“The shift to renewables is a juggernaut. Earlier, when I started working in this area, the shift was slower. When you talked to energy providers and companies there was less of a desire to change. But that’s changed,” Kate says.
As the Energy System Research Facilities Leader, Kate is responsible for managing many of the state-of-the-art assets in Newcastle. This includes the futuristic Renewable Energy Integration Facility.
“The Newcastle facilities support the research and development of energy efficiency and grid integration energy technologies,” she says.
“And it all helps Australia’s transition to net zero emissions.”
For instance, Kate also manages the laboratory that tests how efficient air conditioners and refrigeration systems are. It’s called the National Heating Ventilation & Air Conditioning (HVAC) Test Performance Facility. It means that you, as a consumer, can trust the star rating on the air conditioner you buy. You can be sure you’re buying the most efficient product, helping you reduce your energy bill and your impact on the environment.
Another example is the team’s work into residential batteries.
Kate and her colleagues work at the forefront of residential home battery work. The team is researching batteries and how they operate and integrate into the grid.
“My team is working on a project that measures the performance of the battery energy system – the solar panels, the battery, and the inverter that connects to the grid,” she says.
“Can we make the whole ‘round-trip’ more efficient to utilise existing grid infrastructure to get more out of it?”
So, for everyday Australians, Kate and her team are improving safety for the home, improving the operation of the battery, and improving the energy use.
“Our work enables people to store energy in batteries when there’s no demand,” Kate says.
“Australians can optimise their battery use to save money and feedback into the household at peak times (usually at 6pm when everyone is cooking dinner) and to make use of their own stored energy over this time.
“It’s better for the grid, better for the household, and better for the environment. I really believe that batteries are part of the transition to the sustainable energy system and energy sector transformation.”
What’s your advice for girls and women entering the energy arena?
“If you had told me I’d be working in energy and influencing Australia’s energy sector 10 years ago, I would have laughed at you,” Kate says.
“At the time I was so focused on the medical research. What drives me is wanting to help people.”
Kate’s advice is to take opportunities and not to “travel through work with your blinkers on,” she says.
“Be open to, and take, those opportunities. Be willing to try something new and different.
“The energy scene has so much to offer. You don’t have to be super technical. I am not originally trained as an engineer, but I learned a lot on the way.”
Energy research has also provided Kate with opportunities to travel.
“I’ve been to Belgium, China and France through my work. It opens up your world. And you can contribute more than the technical side of things … so go for it!”
And what would Kate like to do in the future?
“I’m a huge advocate for women in science and engineering. Making sure that women have access to networking and the forum in which they feel comfortable to speak up and say their piece,” Kate says.
“Women and girls know their stuff and have a thirst to learn, they just need the opportunity for a voice. Particularly in male-dominated industries (like Energy). Men have established networks and the confidence to put themselves ‘out there’. Women should have the right to have their space, too.”