July 31, 2020

Envisioning a Future with Marine Energy: How Predictive Modeling Informs Decision Making  with Kate Buenau


Kate Bueanu

Marine renewable energy (MRE) research doesn’t always happen from a boat or in a laboratory; much of this impactful work is conducted in front of a computer screen. Predictive modeling has become an integral part of understanding the environmental effects of MRE deployments and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)'s ecological modeling expert, Kate Buenau, is bringing her modeling prowess to the Triton Initiative.

Buenau is a senior research scientist who specializes in quantitative ecology and modeling for the Coastal Sciences Division at the Marine and Coastal Research Laboratory (MCRL) at PNNL-Sequim. She joined MCRL in 2009 after earning a PhD in ecology and marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For the past 11 years, Buenau has primarily worked on large-scale ecosystem restoration projects, including recovery programs for the Missouri River and the Columbia River Estuary, and habitat restoration in Puget Sound.   

In addition to ecological modeling and data analysis for these programs, she works on the design and implementation of large-scale adaptive management programs. She has modeled everything from coral-algae competition, to eelgrass physiology, and shorebird populations, with a focus on how individuals and populations interact with their habitats. The spatial models she creates show the actions needed to improve habitats of plants and animal species in distress. Buenau’s passion for ecosystem health and longevity has guided her career in coastal sciences.   

 “A common challenge is helping people from a wide variety of backgrounds understand what uncertainty in model predictions means, and how to use it as a tool for making better decisions,” states  Buenau. “For example, an engineer might have a very different approach to risk than a research scientist, and a manager responsible for budget decisions may have yet another view. Interested members of the public may also need to understand what uncertainty means and how it fits into decisions.”   

 According to Buenau, building a model used to make decisions may be one-third technical work and two-thirds communication and engagement. Buenau’s experience with stakeholders, her technical expertise, and her passion for ecology make her uniquely positioned to serve the MRE industry. There are many actors striving to understand the environmental effects of MRE, and modeling helps make sense of the available information so progress can be made.    

Supporting the development of MRE so that it benefits both humans and the environment is an important part of Buenau’s broader motivation to build a more sustainable world. Her work with the U.S. Department of Energy Water Power Technologies Office’s Triton Initiative on the Triton Field Trials (TFiT) team has involved reviewing models that can be used in conjunction with monitoring to improve environmental assessment of MRE projects.   

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Published: July 31, 2020