Harnessing Big Data to Work Toward Net Zero

Sophia Zhang forecasts future energy demands to help build infrastructure for tomorrow’s needs—and combat climate change

Sophia Zhang, AG21, envisions a future in which we can commute to work, heat or cool our homes, and cook dinner free from worry about climate change. Clean energy will no longer be a luxury commodity but a resource available to everyone, everywhere, at any time. Most drivers will have electric cars and use them like miniature power plants, and consumers will know the best times of day to charge their vehicles or supply energy from their vehicles’ batteries through the power grid. 

A graduate of Tufts’ data analytics program, Zhang is a senior data scientist for Eversource, an energy utility that provides electric, gas, and water service to 4.4 million customers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. “I am part of a strategic initiative within the company to take more of a data-driven approach to traditional electricity forecasting,” she explains. 

Predicting electrical demand doesn’t mean just modeling how much energy customers will need in the near term. “That would be much easier,” Zhang says. Instead, she looks decades into the future. “Policy will play a big role in how quickly and where people will electrify”—that is, switch to electric power for vehicles, home heating, and other uses, she explains. “A huge part of my job is using big data and new methods and technologies to imagine future demand and try to match that with alternative energy solutions.”

Another part is helping consumers understand the power they have (“pun intended,” says Zhang) to control their own energy usage. That means finding ways to share information effectively so that people know when and how to produce, store, and sell their own energy. Having informed customers is crucial, according to Zhang, because “we all need energy. The economy and the world order depend on a stable supply.”

Net Zero: The Driving Goal

The ultimate goal? “Supporting the push for net-zero emissions,” says Zhang—in other words, contributing to global efforts to achieve a balance between the amount of greenhouse gas the world produces and the amount it removes from the atmosphere.

Because fossil fuels, such as coal and gas, contribute more greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere than cleaner energy sources, such as solar power, wind, and biofuels, a crucial part of the net-zero effort is reducing consumers’ dependence on fossil fuels. Eversource launched the initiative that Zhang is a part of about a year ago, hoping to use data to help lead the way toward cleaner energy usage.

“The whole purpose is to position ourselves to support the future ecosystem—and current net-zero efforts—because, with the existing infrastructure, people cannot proceed in that direction. There has to be an organized and integrated plan from the supply and demand side,” explains Zhang.

Growing Up Energized

Zhang’s work has roots in personal experience. She grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, a major center for the Canadian energy industry because of the region’s oil and gas production. Her father was an engineer in the industry, as were most of her friends’ parents.

Steeped in the world of energy from a young age and drawn to STEM fields in her early schooling, Zhang says it felt natural to pursue a career in the field. At first, that meant working as a chemical process engineer. 

But Zhang became increasingly interested in two things: data analytics and cleaner energy. It was, once again, partly her hometown that influenced her: “Six or seven years ago throughout Alberta, where I was working at the time, there was a strong push for wind energy and alternative fuels. That made me see that there’s a drive from the bottom—people who want a cleaner energy future—and also from the top: organizations and governments that are working to make cleaner energy a reality. I wanted to be a part of that.”

That’s when Zhang looked toward Tufts’ data analytics program. “I felt with my newfound passion in data analytics and my background in engineering and energy, I could create a lot more impact,” she explains.

Powered Up

If the recognition her team recently won is any indication, Zhang will have no trouble making an impact. In December, the New England Clean Energy Council recognized Eversource with a Partnership of the Year award for its collaboration with Gridtwin, a company that helps solar developers connect to the grid.

The award is usually given to smaller consulting outfits or startups, Zhang says; this was the first time that a utility had won it. “Utilities often are viewed as slow to innovate,” she adds, “but I wanted to show that it’s possible for bigger companies to develop effective and groundbreaking initiatives. We’re working on embracing new ideas and new partnerships as much as possible.”


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