Lillian Bischof: Predicting the future of clean energy
She’s an engineer who focuses on renewable energy sources. She’s a business wiz with a zest for finance and management. And she’s an aficionado of all things pickled.
Story by Micaela Morrissette
West Virginia University undergraduate Lilian Bischof wears many hats – or perhaps one big, amazing hat. But it’s what’s inside Bischof’s head, not on top of it, that earned her a prestigious invitation to present her research in the lobby of the Capitol building in Charleston during the February 2023 legislative session, as part of West Virginia Undergraduate Research Day. Her work on clean energy generation evaluates the feasibility of producing solar and wind power at several locations in West Virginia.
The dual major in chemical engineering and business administration developed a passion for math, science and financial literacy growing up in Wheeling, West Virginia. When she graduates in May 2023, she’ll join Boston Consulting Group in Pittsburgh, launching a career in management consulting.
“I want to create innovative solutions to clients’ problems by combining my technical expertise and business acumen,” Bischof said.
Q: Why are you interested in renewable energy?
A: West Virginia is heavily dependent on fossil fuels for energy, but our state presents a strong capability for renewable energy systems. We have to study the performance and economic feasibility of renewable energy in West Virginia if we’re going to expand our energy potential and offset fossil fuel use.
Q: Your research involves modeling. What is that?
A: Modeling is a field that captures and explains real-world scenarios with math. It allows us to make predictions or gain insights about the world without engaging in invasive experiments.
For example, working with the System Advisor Model, a modeling software more commonly known as SAM that was developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, I evaluated solar and wind energy performance at different locations based on power plant designs, without physically building a plant.
When I model in SAM, my inputs can include geographic coordinates, the system design, system losses or weather data, for example. Then SAM can output information like annual, monthly and hourly energy generation, as well as levelized cost of energy, power purchase agreement price, payback period or net present value.
My research proved SAM could produce reliable models for energy generation. I designed models for six wind power plants in West Virginia, and with relatively low error I was able to plot the monthly energy generated from my SAM model against the actual energy produced as reported to the Energy Information Administration.
Q: In your opinion, what are the prospects for wind and solar in West Virginia? Does each have strengths and weaknesses specific to this region?
A: When it comes to wind power, West Virginia has a large stretch with very suitable wind speeds at appropriate heights for wind turbines, particularly the stretch from Beckley to the Eastern Panhandle.
As for solar, prospects for large-scale solar development on degraded land in West Virginia were screened through the Environmental Protection Agency’s RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative. From that study, 582 sites, comprising 61 square miles of land, were deemed suitable for large-scale solar development. Then further studies narrowed those sites down to 15 possibilities.
My most recent research has been designing hypothetical solar power plants for those 15 sites. I was motivated partly by the lack of a large-scale solar power plant in West Virginia, despite the potential. However, Savion Energy is currently developing a 250-megawatt solar power farm across the borders of Boone and Lincoln counties on the site of a former coal mine. There’s a lot of potential here for solar development, and there’s opportunity for significant energy generation on degraded mine sites with no current economic use.
One major roadblock West Virginia faces with respect to both wind and solar power is topography – our mountains can block the sunlight and slow the winds. We also need solutions for storing the power we create from both wind and solar, rather than needing to use it immediately.
Q: What was it like working with associate professor Fernando Lima on this study?
A: The summer after my sophomore year, I joined CODES, Dr. Lima’s Control, Optimization and Design for Energy and Sustainability Research Group, and he asked me to explore SAM’s potential in modeling performance and financial outputs for solar and wind energy. In meetings with the CODES Group, I’d receive feedback from mentors and have opportunities to present and receive critiques from the entire group of graduate and undergraduate students. Over time, that evolved into my Honors EXCEL project, studying the expansion of solar energy in West Virginia. I received immense support from Dr. Lima and PhD student Ronald Alexander throughout, and their collaboration helped make the research something I’m truly proud of.
Q: What’s next for this project?
A: My peer Ashley McCullough and I are working on a manuscript to submit to the 2023 Clearwater Clean Energy Conference. It will combine research we’ve worked on with Dr. Lima and our graduate mentors Ron Alexander and Selorme Agbleze, demonstrating an algorithm for evaluating sites’ solar and wind power potential using open-source softwares.
Q: Weirdest favorite food?
A: I love pickles! Last summer I attended Picklesburgh, a huge festival on Pittsburgh’s Rachel Carson Bridge.
Q: What’s the scariest thing you’ve done?
A: I am quite risk averse, but I love ocean paddleboarding, and I have done “the marathon” – whitewater-rafting 24 miles of Class III through V rapids in West Virginia’s Upper and Lower Gauley rivers during Gauley Season.
Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit
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