Lea Li Kou leads cutting-edge clean energy projects at NYPA
Successful by any standard, this PhD overcame culture shock, language barriers, and the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated field. She now leads two major projects
Lea Li Kou, PhD, professional engineer (PE) and certified energy manager, is a senior research and technology development engineer and project manager with the New York Power Authority (NYPA, White Plains, NY). NYPA is the nation’s largest state public power organization, with sixteen generating facilities and more than 1,400 circuit-miles of transmission lines.
Kou grew up in the southeast Chinese coastal city of Ningbo. She got her undergraduate degree in ChE in 1992 from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. She came to the U.S. in 1994 to continue her schooling, and received an MSChE in 1998 and a PhD in ChE in 2000, both from the Illinois Institute of Technology (Chicago).
Most of her work involves mechanical engineering, so she obtained her professional engineering license in ME while working at NYPA. “Some areas of chemical and mechanical engineering intersect. I worked with thermal fluids, and I did my PhD in fuel cells, so that was the connection,” she says. She points out that in the power industry, MEs are involved primarily in power generation and EEs in power transmission and distribution, but chemical elements, like steam, water purity and environment safety, are involved as well.
Kou works in NYPA’s clean energy technology group. “All the past and current projects I have worked on directly support NYPA’s mission to provide clean, low-cost and reliable energy consistent with our commitment to the environment and safety, while promoting economic and job development, energy efficiency, renewables and innovation for the benefit of our customers and all New Yorkers,” she says.
Kou manages both NYPA’s energy efficiency market acceleration program (EE-MAP) and a small-scale above- ground compressed air energy storage project. She also tracks, evaluates and implements clean energy technologies for wind, solar and biomass generation. The EE-MAP program is a $30 million, five-year initiative, still in development, that will help advance emerging commercial energy efficiency services and products. “The program will create new jobs in New York, and provide innovations for energy savings,” she explains.
Kou’s other project has an estimated cost of $20 million and involves storing energy using compressed air during off-peak hours. The energy is then released during peak hours. “For this project, we’ve done the feasibility study and we’re in the design stage. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is providing the funding. The Electrical Power Research Institute is working on the project with us, and several other utilities are interested in joining us if we go into the construction phase,” Kou says.
Along with her responsibility for both projects, Kou provides oversight for about twenty to thirty contractors and consultants. She sees her management style as open-minded. “I’m always willing to listen to good ideas,” she says.
Before joining NYPA in 2007, Kou worked for six years as a senior scientist at Siemens Power Generation (Orlando, FL), a power and energy solutions provider. In 2006, she was also an adjunct professor at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA.
Influences and learning opportunities
One of the most important influences on the path to her current career was her collaboration with a scientist at Siemens Power Generation. “I was fortunate enough to work with the eighty-year-old scientist who invented the oxygen sensor used in automobiles, and later solid oxide fuel cells. Through him, I learned that innovation is the key to a company’s future. He also taught me the technological side of the utility industry.
“At NYPA, I learned the importance of combining technical skills with business skills. This influenced my decision to pursue an MBA,” she says. She plans to enroll in the MBA program at Pace University (Pleasantville-Briarcliff, NY) this year.
She believes the key to her move into project management was staying passionate and curious. But to continue on the path to success in her field, she notes, “getting a quality MBA education and continuing to grow and contribute technically are important as well.”
Although engineering is a male dominated profession, Kou says there are quite a few women engineers working at NYPA. At Siemens, there were few women. She believes it can be hard for women in engineering to get recognized at times.
Kou has faced other challenges as well. When she first came to the U.S., she says she experienced both culture shock and a language barrier. Although she had studied English in China, communication was difficult at first. Today, one of her biggest challenges is raising her three boys. “When I have spare time, I spend it with my children,” she says.
Kou clearly enjoys her job. “This industry is challenging for a woman, but very rewarding. I feel I’ve achieved a lot and learned a lot. Working on emerging technology is exciting.”
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