As India’s rising population places an unrealistic burden on existing power infrastructure, there is a dire need to come up with efficient and cost effective ways to generate, distribute and transmit power.

Pranjal Verma, our next pathbreaker, researches Electricity Markets based on models that include multiple private players, delivery logistics and transmission constraints to generate the best possible scenario for customers in terms of reliability and cost.

Pranjal talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how his first internship on electricity market models and his research on generators and grid network topologies not only connected his project with the industry but also opened his eyes to an unexplored world of optimisations and Power Systems research.

For students, you should always aspire to do an internship, especially in seemingly abstract areas such as modeling, which helps you understand its relevance from a real world perspective !

Pranjal, tell us about Your background?

I did my schooling from Andaman & Nicobar Islands (A&N), Port Blair. I took up PCM+B in +2 based on CBSE curriculum in school. I was initially interested in Mathematics. There was no coaching for IIT-JEE or AIEEE in A&N at the time that i was studying. In my opinion, that has hugely helped me. I had time to explore subjects at my leisure and think about topics without being under the pressure of a schedule. I did not follow a schedule: sometimes it took weeks to solve a single problem and that helped me a lot later. Dad was in A&N Govt Service and mom was a housewife. I participated in a lot of extra curricular activities: Hindi elocutions (for several years). I played several games casually with friends.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my B.Tech Electrical and Electronics from NIT Puducherry 2014 Batch.

Post B.Tech I got admission at IIT Madras for my Direct Ph.D and I am in the process of finishing my Ph.D in Power System Economics.

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

My internship in 3rd year was at IIT Delhi under the guidance of Prof. B.K.Panigrahi. That internship changed the direction of my career and that is still the research topic that I study today. My parents also encouraged me to follow research. My interest in Math is attributed to my Math teachers in Port Blair, Colonel Sir and Harpal Sir.

I had applied for the internship at IIT Delhi through their SRF (Summer Research Fellow) program. During the internship I worked on solving problems related to Power System Economics using various Optimisation techniques. I was taking the problems that the senior PhD students at IIT Delhi were working on and trying to solve them with alternate optimisation algorithms.

I will always be grateful to Prof. B.K.Panigrahi (Intern Mentor), Prof K.Chandrasekaran (who was my final year project guide at NIT Puducherry), Prof K.S.Swarup, Prof Dipti Srinivasan and Prof Mohammad R Hesamzadeh who guided me in my PhD, as well as  Guillame Ridoux who introduced me to the industry and helped me bridge my research with the industry.

Tell us about your career path

The IIT Delhi internship opened my eyes to an unexplored world of optimisations and Power Systems research. That exposure gave me the confidence that a PhD was a very feasible thing for me.

In my final year BTech, I continued to develop on my internship project from IIT Delhi. I extended it and published a conference paper at the end of 4th year. I took the GATE exam, though I was not prepared for it. I did not study for GATE: I just qualified the exams. However I was a gold medalist and had the highest CGPA at my college and that helped me get shortlisted for the on campus written exam for a Direct PhD at IIT Madras. 

Once I joined my PhD at IIT Madras, my supervisor Prof Swarup called me into his office on the first day and asked me to work on Power Systems Planning as my PhD topic. Thats how I got into Power Systems Planning and that led me into Electricity Markets Research.

In my PhD I explore the question: Where should Generators and Transmission Lines be installed in a grid so that, the entities make sufficient profits; the electricity prices do not spike and the system operates securely and reliably. The work also models a competition between different players and calculates a Nash Equilibrium in Electricity Markets.

While a visiting scholar at NUS (national University of Singapore) for my PhD I met Guillame R through LinkedIn: he introduced me to ABB EPM tool and I did a brief internship with him. When my project finished and I started writing my thesis, I was contacted by Energy Exemplar based on that internship with Guillame to join their Pune office.

This internship was during my PhD course. The internship was to develop an electricity market model of Philippines in ABB’s PROMOD modelling software. I had to conduct research on all the generators and the entire network topology in the Philippines grid. That was when I started connecting my project with industry.

How did you get your first break?

My first break, I would say, was the Internship at IIT Delhi with Prof Panigrahi. I got that because I had consistently maintained a good CGPA and had won a small competition in a Techfest on Optimization techniques.

The competition was to find engineering applications from nature inspired architecture. I chose nature inspired optimization techniques as a base and developed a small project for the competition.

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

Mathematics was my interest, but I had never been formally been trained as a Math Undergrad (I did EEE). So once I started my PhD I realised I had to learn Grad level math on my own and learnt things needed for my research.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I am still a research scholar at IIT Madras-NUS Singapore. I am a visiting scholar at KTH Sweden. I work at Energy Exemplar (Pune), a company that creates software that simulates real-world energy markets, to help stakeholders make key decisions in delivering power. 

Yes. I am still a student and writing my thesis. And I have taken up a job.

In my research in academia I work on developing models for accessing Electricity markets. This is more mathematical and most of my work is trying to condense the equations into a simplified way and solve the optimisation problem. This is something that is very novel and challenging.

In industry, the job is normal. It is about building a good product and helping customers understand the model that the product solves. It is interesting as you work with real clients and understand what they want. However, it is not challenging per say in terms of the math or model.

What is the real-world application of electricity markets and why is this important?

Electricity Markets is a concept that allows everyone to sell and buy electricity as a commodity. Just like we can buy and sell milk in a market- I study and enable companies to buy and sell electricity. However this comes with its set of challenges: starting from the fact that electrical energy cannot be stored efficiently and the operator/buyer/seller has to follow the physics of the network.

In a real grid scenario, companies would want to invest and set up a Power plant. Then they would want to sell the power and consumers could buy it. If there was only one company doing it, consumers would not have any options and would be at mercy of the single seller. Electricity markets allows a competition and thus more economical operation of the grid. It helps keep the electricity prices low 😊 – low prices is the ideal scenario we would want for consumers-> I have simplified the description a lot here; it is not a full story here and it would go on and on if I write.

I address modelling challenges for Electricity Market Problems. I learnt coding skills on the job. I was not scared of coding since i could google and pick up the skill. My mathematics skills also came through personal efforts. My exposure to Electricity Markets came from my 3rd year internship + Final Year project +PhD Internship + PhD research.

How does your work benefit the society? 

My work helps the industry serve more customers and avoid power outages, as well as save money and cost for society.

So electricity markets will allow the consumer chose their options. They could pay more if they want a reliable source of electricity or pay less and get their electricity from a renewable generator. It puts the choice back in the hands of the consumer. If a power plant does not provide reliable supply and has a high cost, no consumer would opt for it and it would go out of business. That is the market correcting itself via the prices going low. If the demand is high then expensive generators could sell off their electricity as there is a shortage of electricity in the grid.

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

There is a proof that I presented last year about effect of Market Power on Consumers in the Electricity Market. It is a theoretical proof that shows that there is a negative effect of Market Power.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

You should study the subject you like. Academics matter (CGPA matters): so, take studies seriously. 

Future Plans?

I would like to do Postdoc and Explore the Solver Industry ahead