Library Research Data Services: Powering Scholarship and Solar Projects

—By Emily Beagle

As a PhD in mechanical engineering, I never imagined that my postdoc position would bring me into an academic library, but by good fortune I learned about the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship program from a faculty member at UT and was selected as one of four postdocs in the new Data Curation for Energy Economics Track. Partially funded by the Sloan Foundation, is the first CLIR postdoc track that has expanded into energy economics. The four of us each have a joint appointment between the university’s energy research center and the library. In my role at the University of Texas at Austin, I have a joint position in the UT Libraries and the Webber Energy Group, a research group based in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

In the library, I am part of the Research Support and Digital Initiatives group, specifically in research data services. I work closely with the scholarly communications librarian and the research data services coordinator to inform and improve the research data services provided by the Libraries. I give presentations to groups, including faculty, graduate students and staff, on data management and participate in other data related outreach events. On the engineering side, my tasks are fairly standard to any research-based postdoc position. I perform independent research as well as supervise students and aid them in their own research.

My biggest fear when starting this position was that my two different roles on campus would be completely disparate, but I have been pleasantly surprised to find that this has not been the case.

BeagleMy first research project as part of the Webber Energy Group involved assessing the potential for installing solar photovoltaic (PV) in existing right-of-ways (ROW) along interstates. The ROW is the area alongside interstates and other roads that is Interstate System land maintained by state departments of transportation (DOTs) and has the potential to be a good location for installation of solar PV. The power generated by these solar panels could be used to power rest areas or electric vehicle charging stations, or could be sold back to the grid, providing revenues to local DOTs. This project was sponsored by The Ray, an 18-mile living transportation innovation laboratory, which currently has several solar PV projects installed and in the work along I-85 in Georgia.

My part of the project required analyzing large amounts of public data on interstates, transmission lines and other energy infrastructures, and protected areas across the United States, as well as estimating solar revenue potential using spatial solar data and electricity prices. We first excluded sections of interstates in areas that were unsuitable for solar development. For example, it would add significant costs to install additional transmission lines for new solar installations, so we had to consider sections of interstates that were within a specified distance of existing transmission. Also, solar panels would need to be installed near existing exits for ease of access for maintenance, and they couldn’t be installed within national parks, national forests, or other protected areas. Once feasible areas were identified, local solar resource quality data were used to estimate the potential solar power output at these locations.

This project presented a perfect opportunity to learn more about, and use, many of the research data services tools offered by the library and maintained by the very group of which I was now a part. And in using these resources for my engineering project I was able to suggest improvements for the libraries. For example, I am helping to create online content that will make resources for writing data management plans easier to find and use. I will be using many of the library’s resources, including the Texas Data Repository, to share all of the final data and analysis tools from this project. For me, the most exciting collaboration between this project and my library work was the addition of a new workshop to the library’s Data & Donuts series. I was able to take the skills that I learned for The Ray project and use them to develop and teach a workshop on R for Geospatial Analysis. It was incredibly rewarding to contribute to this workshop series as part of the libraries and also share what I had learned with the greater UT research community.

I am embarrassed to admit how naïve I was, as a new fellow, about the extent of resources and services provided by the libraries to assist researchers of all disciplines. This naivety was the basis for my original fears and hesitations about this position. In the short time I have worked in UT Libraries, I have been continually impressed by the amount of effort that library staff put into developing, maintaining, and improving services for researchers. And I am excited to continue learning!