There are several operational hurdles in the implementation of Renewable Energy, especially if these technologies were to replace conventional power delivery; the biggest challenge being the unpredictability of weather.
Surbhi Goel, our next pathbreaker, develops machine learning models to predict the generation of renewable power using weather forecast, which helps power wholesalers and distributors ensure efficient utilization of Renewable Energy.
Surbhi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the importance of machine learning models in ensuring a stable power supply with maximum renewable integration in the country’s energy mix.
For students, transitioning completely to renewable energy is better said than done. If you are ready to take on the operational challenges, go for it it because this is the future ! And the icing on the cake is the work at the intersection of environment, engineering and data science.
Surbhi, tell us about your background?
I was brought up in a small town in Haryana and finished my Bachelors in a local Engineering college. I had always been active in extra curriculars throughout my studies. I have taken part in almost every cliché activity like singing, dancing etc. I particularly enjoyed taking part in debates and elocution because I always carry a strong enthusiasm about the society, cultures, nature etc, and I talk a lot which kind of helps me explain things to people who are not too aware about global issues like global warming.
In a family of four, my father is a retired government official and my mother is a homemaker. In spite of staying in a conservative society, both of my parents have been extremely supportive of my career choices.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
My engineering specialization was in Electronics and Communication. It had a couple of modules from Electrical Engineering as well, that helped me in my master’s studies. I did my MSc in Renewable Energy and Clean Technology from The University of Manchester.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
My town has a small community of people, with tiny houses and greener surroundings. The greenery eventually started fading away with growing modernisation and infrastructure. I am a nature lover and it pains me to see how we have pushed the Earth to a point of almost no going back. But I want to do everything in my capacity to keep the precious resources of nature intact. This was one of the key drivers for me to further my knowledge in Renewable Energy systems.
During masters, I studied how integration of renewables in our conventional power system had the potential to considerably cut down carbon emissions and reduce global warming to some extent. This motivated me to pursue a career in the renewables field.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I decided to go to UK for my masters, and got a chance to meet some really smart and learned people from various countries. It helped me broaden my horizon of knowledge. Knowing about technologies that are fairly new to India, was a key driver in my quest for a career in Renewables. The thought of being able to implement these technologies in our infrastructure motivated me. It was a one year course that included the study of Renewables from an Engineering as well as policy making perspective. My jobs and internships before masters were not relevant technologically, to what I am doing currently. But those experiences certainly gave me an exposure to corporate culture.
My first job was to work as a technical support for an MNC. That helped me gain effective communication skills. After that I worked for an IT company as a product developer for more than a year. I designed Business Intelligence reports there and after a while I realised that I am not finding my work motivating enough and I wanted to do something to make a bigger impact on the world. That’s when I decided to go for a masters in Renewables. I took the IELTS test for language proficiency and submitted my application to University of Manchester and University of Edinburgh because their course structure was more aligned to my academic background and interests. I finally chose Manchester because it is a lively city and has a learned faculty. The course was focused on Engineering aspects of Renewable Energy Systems and formulation of policy for implementation of the systems. The course was a perfect amalgamation of theoretical and practical knowledge.
How did you get your first break?
My first job in the field was as a Research Engineer. My work involved developing software for the Renewable Energy domain using Machine Learning Technology. I got the job when I came back to India after my masters. I had a series of interviews for the role and got selected. Since it is a fairly newer field, the job market in India for freshers in the field is tough. But you have to be persistent and work continuously to stay on the path of progress. The key is to not lose hope even in the most hopeless of the times. You will reach somewhere. That somewhere will lead you to better times and better places eventually. Just keep going.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: I didn’t get a job in the UK because of the strict visa policies at the time i graduated. On the other hand, India still doesn’t have the technologies that I learnt in my masters, like smart grids. The challenge was to look for a role in India that would focus on future technology. Thankfully, after a bit of research, I got introduced to Machine Learning and it’s implementation in the Wind/Solar Energy sector as my first job.
Challenge 2: After around a year at my job as research engineer, I had to quit my job due to health issues. The management was not too supportive and the time I quit was when most of the companies had frozen their hiring. I was jobless for almost 3 months. It was one of the most difficult phases of my life as I didn’t have enough money to survive on my own. With the help of some friends, I managed to keep myself positive and got a good role after 3 months. That phase taught me how important friends are and how one should have some financial backup for the tough times.
Where do you work now?
I develop machine learning models for the RE (Renewable Energy) domain. I have to keep a tab on what’s latest in the market and what scope it holds in the future. On the basis of my research, I frame my models that predict various issues in the Wind/Solar Energy industry.
The job requires a thorough knowledge of Solar and Wind Energy generation. To implement this knowledge, I needed to learn Machine Learning technology. I downloaded some study material from the internet and learnt the rest eventually while working.
Weekdays are usually spent in office and commute because office is a little far from my home. In the evening, when I come home, I watch some comedy or sci-fi shows on netflix and talk to parents. I recently joined a dance class too to keep myself fit and active, because with the kind of routine that we have now days, it is important to do some physical activity like dance, gym, yoga or simply running to stay in your senses. It really makes you feel refreshed and light.
Reconnect Energy is more than 8 years old and works mainly in the area of Solar/Wind power forecasting and scheduling. Their in-house machine learning models predict the generation of power using weather forecast. The information is then handed over to Load Dispatch Centres to ensure the efficient utilisation of Renewable Energy.
What is it you love about this job?
My current job gives me the freedom to bring in new ideas and new technologies at work. Seniors are very supportive and encouraging. Currently I have an opportunity to do the things I wanted to do in the UK. I have my own breathing space without much of daily deadlines and micromanagement.
How does your work benefit society?
The industry itself is taking prominent steps to reduce the global carbon footprint. Our country’s NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) have largely to do with the integration of Renewable Energy resources in power systems. Since the nature of these resources is intermittent, it is very important to at least have an estimation of how much energy we can harness continuously. This would benefit the Load Dispatch centres and players in the wholesale energy market to manage resources better. So it is our job to predict the future performance of these resources. Thus, there will be stable power supply with maximum renewable integration in the country’s energy mix.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I once made a presentation to our professors In Manchester about the idea of a new software product for the Solar energy domain. It was an amazing experience to be able to share your ideas with such scholars. There was an impromptu question answer round and I received really good feedback. This was one of the most memorable times so far.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I would want to say that, never give up no matter what situation life throws at you. In the end, it’ll all work out. If you don’t get the best, take the available option and work even harder to get the best. Never settle for less because you are 100% capable of getting that college or job or industry that you have always fancied. Be headstrong and give yourself a chance to shine.
In future, I plan to grow to the RE industry. I am still figuring out my interest in the Machine Learning domain. So far, it has been a decent experience as while developing the ML models, the most important thing is how you are able to think of new applications in the industry, that can make people’s life easier. In long term, I also plan to start a small bakery of my own in next 5 years, as the second best thing that I enjoy doing is Baking. We have got one life and we must try things that bring happiness and contentment to us before we die.