Living off the grid is not just convenient but our responsibility to our environment and our larger society. And if we can generate more electricity than we consume, we can contribute surplus renewable power to the grid, thus balancing out demand ! Technologies such as IoT, AI, Smart Devices are making this possible !

Nitin Padmanabhan, Ph.D., our next pathbreaker, focuses on integrating new technologies into electricity markets, with the vision of realising a smart electricity grid which would not only be safe, efficient and economically viable but also create a win-win situation for all stakeholders – the system operator, market participants (resource owners), and also customers like us.

Nitin talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about initially pursuing his passion for teaching and then taking up an opportunity to do his PhD (Electrical Markets) in Canada and a subsequent career in the industry.

For students, Electricity Markets are going to change the way we live, by reducing our dependence on the centralized grid. Be a part of the exciting new wave of technologies.

Nitin, tell us about your background?

At the outset, let me take this opportunity to appreciate ‘The Interview Portal’ for this initiative to interview young professionals. I believe sharing their academic/life journey with the student community can serve as motivation for future budding talents. Also, I would like to thank Mr. Shyam Krishnamurthy, for extending an invitation to me for being a part of this initiative.

Next, coming to my background. I was born and brought up in Raipur, Chhattisgarh (earlier Madhya Pradesh). My father (Late A. L. Padmanabhan) was a Civil Engineer, working for Raipur Development Authority. My mother (Kamala Padmanabhan) is a Hindi BA graduate. She is a homemaker who worked for a couple of years as a teacher. I have a younger brother (Vipin Padmanabhan), who is working as an assistant professor in an engineering college in Thrissur, Kerala. My parents and brother have been my best motivators. 

I completed my schooling from Adarsh Vidyalaya. I was blessed to have great teachers who helped me in building a strong foundation for learning. I did very well academically in school. At the same time, I was involved in a lot of curricular and extracurricular activities. I had been the Head-Boy in my school. I always had an affinity towards science and mathematics, which paved my way to pursue engineering.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After my father’s retirement we were planning to move and settle in Thrissur, Kerala (my parents’ native place). Hence, I decided to pursue my B.Tech in Kerala. Right from my childhood I had an interest in electrical systems, thus I chose Electrical and Electronics Engineering branch for my B.Tech. I opted for Vidya Academy of Science & Technology (VAST), as it was very close to my home. I was the first batch student of this college and indeed this helped me develop a special bonding with the teachers and management. This institution has played a big role in molding me as a socially responsible electrical engineer. In my final year, I had placement offers from Infosys and Ernst & Young (EY). I didn’t accept these offers because I had a great passion for teaching and wanted to pursue teaching as my career, hence I decided to go for my post graduation. 

I cleared the GATE exam (Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering – national level exam for M.Tech admission) and took up M.Tech with specialization in Power Systems at Government Engineering College Thrissur, Kerala. After completing my M.Tech I joined my alma mater (Vidya Academy of Science & Technology) as a lecturer and thereafter as Assistant Professor. I worked there for 5 years. In 2014, I had an opportunity to join the Ph.D. program at University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. I completed my Ph.D. in July 2019.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

My career (2009 – till now) has been in academics – teaching and research. As I mentioned earlier, I have a great passion for teaching – imparting (and gaining as well) knowledge, interacting and helping students. Thus I decided to choose teaching as my career. I have been greatly influenced by my teacher (during B.Tech), Dr. Sudha Balagopalan. She has been one of my role models. I always admire her for her dedication for teaching, simplicity, and the unconditional love and care she gives to her students. She was the reason I got admission at University of Waterloo. During the first 5 years of my career (2009-2014), I worked as lecturer and Assistant Professor at Vidya Academy of Science & Technology. I believe I have been able to do well as a teacher during the span of 5 years because I was very particular about two things: (i) Whichever subject I teach, I should be able to ignite a spark of interest for the subject in my students, (ii) I should help my weakest students to do well.

During the next 5 years (2014 – present), I have been a researcher at University of Waterloo, Canada. First, as a research assistant (during my Ph.D.) and now continuing as a Postdoctoral Fellow. I have also been working as a Teaching Assistant during my Ph.D., where I was assisting Course instructors/lab instructors. I am greatly indebted to my Ph.D. supervisor, Prof. Dr. Kankar Bhattacharya. It was Prof. Kankar who introduced me to the world of Electricity Markets and working with him I learned what research is and how to do research?  I will always be indebted to him, for believing in me, even when I stopped believing in myself, being patient with me, and for his fatherly affection. I will throughout my life cherish the memories and learning experience I had under his supervision. He will always be my role model in life. Also I would like to mention my co-supervisor, Dr. Mohamed Ahmed. His continuous advice and suggestions, supervision and motivation throughout my Ph.D. as well as constructive criticism, insightful interest and modesty have been a source of inspiration to me.

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

During my school days, I used to participate in debates, essay writing competitions and deliver speeches. Later during my B.Tech, I had the opportunity to deliver seminars, attend and organize workshops. Also, I used to explain certain topics to my friends. I had been an active student member/office bearer of many professional societies such as IEEE, Indian Society for Technical Education (ISTE), Energy Conservation Society. I believe all these activities greatly helped me to develop my presentation skills. It was during my B.Tech I realized I had traits to be a teacher. Thus, I started seriously thinking about considering teaching as my profession.

My first job was as a lecturer at Vidya Academy of Science & technology. My primary responsibilities were to deliver lectures, conduct labs, student evaluations & grading. I was so passionate about teaching that I never considered it as a job, rather it was something I enjoyed a lot. However, I wanted to excel in teaching so I devoted a lot of time to improve/gain effective teaching skills by attending workshops/ training programs. I regularly collected feedback from my students and worked on improving my weak areas. I am very happy and proud to note that I received excellent teaching evaluations and also high pass percentages for the courses I taught. During my teaching career, I worked not only to impart knowledge of engineering subjects to my students but also on their overall development which includes helping them to build confidence, learn life skills etc.

I would like to briefly mention my teaching approach which I developed based on the following saying – “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”. Fundamentals of engineering education is to instill in students the ability to systematically blend theory with practical applications of theory. Theory teaches – the why. It helps to understand why one technique works whereas another fails. On the other hand, practical knowledge helps in deeper understanding of concepts through the act of doing and personal experience. I believe that students who have a strong grasp on both the basics of theory and the ability of practical problem solving, will have a sound foundation for later work. During my teaching, I focus on learning facts and principles related to Electrical Engineering and know how and when to apply them.

The second important phase in my career was starting my Ph.D. and beginning of my career as a researcher. When I had gained about 4 years of experience in teaching, I started seriously thinking about pursuing a Ph.D. Initially I thought of doing it from any of the good institutions in India. I applied for Ph.D. admission through the Quality Improvement Program (QIP) and got admission in Government Engineering College Thrissur. It was almost at the same time I had the opportunity to meet Prof. Kankar and with this help, my Ph.D. admission at University of Waterloo materialized. That is how I landed up in Waterloo, Canada. 

I had to move to Canada leaving behind my family. It was a difficult period, the transition from a settled job to that of a student life again, the cultural shift, change in working environment etc. However, within a short span I could adjust to the new environment, with support from my supervisor, family members, colleagues, and friends. 

My Ph.D. program was fully funded from Natural Science and Engineering research Council (NSERC) Canada. I also received a fellowship from the Energy Council of Canada. It was during my first year of Ph.D. studies when I was taking a course offered by my supervisor, that I was attracted to the area of Electricity Markets. I carried out a detailed literature review in this area which helped me understand that there is ample scope to do interesting research related to demand response and energy storage system participation in electricity markets.

In my research career, which spans over 6 years, I worked on “demand response and battery energy storage integrated electricity market design” and “power system economics & operations”, with funding from Natural Science and Engineering research Council (NSERC) Canada. I would like to briefly talk about my area of expertise – electricity markets, which is not that common for everyone. Electricity market, as you can guess from the name, is an arrangement/mechanism through which the market participants (generators who sell energy and large industrial/commercial customers or loads buy energy) buy and sell energy on a daily and real-time basis. Electricity markets combine the principles of economics and power system engineering. During my research, I have attained a good knowledge of the market practices and functioning of various markets – energy, reserve, capacity and demand response markets, administered by various system operators in North America (Ontario, New York, California, Texas etc.).  The most exciting and challenging part of my research was I had the opportunity to work on solving real industry specific problems. During my Ph.D., I received the 2018 Energy Council of Canada (ECC) Energy Research Fellowship, 2017 Faculty of Engineering Award, University of Waterloo, 2017 Best Teaching Assistant Award in Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo. Also, I was the winner of the 3 Minute Thesis competition (3MT) 2019 in Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo.

How did you get your first break?

When I talk about the first break, I would see it in three different ways. 

First break for my teaching career – it wasn’t difficult at all. There was a gap of 4 months between when I completed my B.Tech till the start of my M.Tech program. I used this opportunity to work as guest lecturer at my alma mater, Vidya Academy of Science & technology for a period of 4 months. But I again joined as a full time faculty member there after completing my M.Tech and worked for 5 years.

The break for my research career (Ph.D. studies) – There is a saying “When the student is ready, the Teacher will appear”. Though for me, the first part of the saying was not yet fulfilled; my supervisor (Prof. Kankar) arrived in my life in January 2014 in Thrissur, Kerala. In my very first interaction, I was moved by his simplicity. He advised me to apply for Ph.D. admission and with God’s grace I was accepted as a Ph.D. student at University of Waterloo and started in September 2014.

The break for my industry experience – When I finished my Ph.D. in July 2019, I had decided that I already have more than 11 years of experience in academia (including teaching and research). I now wanted to gain experience of working in industry. I started applying for jobs which were suitable for my expertise as electricity market engineer, power system engineer etc. I started receiving interview calls. Today I have offers from two very reputed electricity market/power system research companies in the US. I have accepted one of the offers and am waiting for my visa to be processed to start working.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I believe life is a journey, you are on a drive. It would never be always a smooth drive for anyone. Life is all about facing challenges and overcoming them. In fact, it is these challenges which bring out the best in you. 

I had to face a lot of challenges too. To mention a few, most of which I faced during my Ph.D. studies. 

Lack of self-confidence: Though I accepted the Ph.D. offer and started my program, initially I was lacking self-confidence. I doubted I would be able to meet the benchmark set by other fellow students at the world class university I joined, how would I complete my Ph.D. etc? But after talking to many of my colleagues I realized most of the Ph.D. students undergo this stage. I was able to build my self-confidence by proper planning, dedication and hardwork. 

Identifying research problem: Though the first year of my Ph.D. journey (coursework) was smooth, the real challenges started when I began my research work. I struggled to identify my research problems, had no clue how to proceed, go in which direction? I was shattered, wanted to quit and go back. Then, my supervisor Prof. Kankar came to my rescue; he first of all instilled in me confidence that I can do this. He guided me patiently through the learning process – mathematical modelling, simulation and coding, technical writing, and life skills too. Gradually, I started picking up things and could finish my thesis with satisfaction.

Time Management/ work-life balance: Being a graduate student with family it was very difficult to manage research and family life. The added challenge was, my wife (Sreedevi Valsan) was also pursuing her Master’s Degree at University of Waterloo, at the same time I was doing my Ph.D. But my wife has been my strongest pillar of support. She has made a lot of sacrifices for me to successfully complete my Ph.D., even when she was also pursuing her graduate degree. She stood by me through all my ups and downs. My little princess, Parvathy, also deserves equal appreciation. It’s her innocent smile which was my source of energy whenever I felt low during these years. She had to spend a large portion of her childhood in the University, which she should have been spending playing, only because her father and mother had to work and study.  But when I turn back and see it was overall a wonderful phase in our life and we did manage to go through it well.

Tell us about your current research

Currently, I am working as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. I am extending my Ph.D. research work to develop electricity market models and frameworks for the integration of battery energy storage systems and demand response mechanisms into electricity markets towards the realization of a smart electricity grid.  I am working on developing cost functions for battery energy storage systems, bidding structure for demand response and battery energy storage systems to participate in electricity markets, and optimization based mathematical models. 

I believe to be a successful researcher one needs to acquire skills such as mathematical modelling, simulation and coding, technical paper writing. All these skills can be developed with hard work, patience and dedicated efforts.

How does your work benefit society? 

As I mentioned, my research focuses on integrating new technologies into electricity markets, which help in improving the functioning of electricity market and power system operations. This will help to move towards the realization of a smart electricity grid which would be more reliable, safe, efficient & economically viable. Thus it would create a win-win situation for all stakeholders – the system operator, market participants (resource owners), and also customers like us.

Traditionally the electricity grids were based on one-way interaction from generation to consumption of electricity. However, with the advancements in information technology (computers, internet, improved communication technologies etc) it was possible to integrate the action of entities in the electricity system through computer-based remote control and automation. This means a two-way interaction has become possible and thus has resulted in making the grid “smart”.  A simple example I would like to cite is – today we can see houses (residential customers) with installed solar panels and battery storage system. This arrangement can help the residential customer to meet its load most of the time but in case of shortage in generation it can still meet its load from the grid. Thus this house can draw energy from the grid as well as supply energy to the grid. This is possible because of the advent of smart grids. There are several advantages of smart grids – enhanced system reliability and security, efficient transmission of electricity, increased integration of renewable energy resources, reduction in peak demand, system losses etc. All these advantages of smart grid help all countries around the globe in operating the power system more efficiently and economically.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

When I was half way through my Ph.D. and was looking for my second research problem. At that point, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) of US came up with a regulatory order which mandates the system operators to allow energy storage systems to participate in electricity markets. I grabbed this opportunity to develop formulations and propositions pertaining to battery energy storage systems, to appropriately meet the important requirement of FERC Order to develop a participation model for energy storage systems, so as to facilitate their participation in electricity markets. This work has received a lot of appreciation from people working with various system and market operators.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I wouldn’t say I have advice to offer to the students but rather some suggestions/reflections based on my personal experience:

The most important goal should be to become a nice human being, responsible citizen. I strongly believe the degrees/ positions you earn in life have no use if you cannot keep your parents and family happy and proud, you cannot treat your fellow beings well. If you do these things well automatically everything will follow and you would be able to reach greater heights in your life.

Next, I would like to share a mantra to succeed in life. This was given to me by my Ph.D. supervisor – “God (research) is in the details”, i.e., paying attention to details is very important and I believe is applicable in all walks of life. Whatever you do – learning/study at school, college, university level or even in your job, never do it superficially, always go into the details, understand everything well, and apply.

Finally, always understand that there would be setbacks in everyone’s life. But be strong and patient, every bad phase will pass and you will have a better future. Always trust in God and be thankful for all you have in your life.

Future Plans?

My near term plan is to start working for the company where I have accepted my job offer. In my job, I will continue to learn as well as contribute in my area of research of electricity markets.  

On the long term plan, once I settle in life, I would like to start giving back to the society which has helped me to reach this stage. As a first step helping students to identify their strengths and choose appropriate higher education/career paths. There are some more ideas in mind which I will work on gradually.