As grids shift from being conventional fossil fuel-based power plants to smaller and distributed solar and wind energy-based sources, there are several operational challenges to deal with !

Ravi Shankar Singh (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Senior Researcher at DNV Netherlands, works towards de-risking the digitalization of modern electrical energy systems by testing and validating new solutions such as control algorithms and digital models to make this energy transition smoother. 

Ravi Shankar talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how our transition from conventional energy to green energy could impact the way energy is produced and used in the future.

For students, the field of green electrical energy is brimming with technologies that are evolving rapidly to enable us reach the sustainability goals set by different stakeholders and governments.

Ravi, can you tell us about your background?

I was born near Patna but have grown up in different parts of India with my parents and younger brother. My dad was an airman in the Indian Air Force and my mom is a homemaker. Change was a constant part of our life and I enjoyed living in every corner of the country, from Chennai to Srinagar and Gujarat to Assam.  My parents were quite relaxed when it came to my education and at each of the locations, I studied at the nearest Kendriya Vidyalaya school.  I was always encouraged to study on my own and was an average student in most of the subjects. Though I enjoyed science the most, I also enjoyed history and geography. After tenth standard I was encouraged to take up science because that was perceived as the best field. After graduating from school in 2005, I decided to pursue a degree in Engineering. I wanted to do mechanical or maybe electrical engineering as I had enjoyed studying physics and a fair idea of what those specializations were like. I was afraid of computer science and IT because that was something still unknown to me. I ended up getting a seat in electrical engineering at NIT Rourkela.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

For my graduation, I studied electrical engineering for four years. I always had interests in conventional subjects related to power-systems and electrical machines. I tried to learn about microprocessors and signal processing, but these topics were always a bit difficult for me.  Interestingly though, later during my masters and PhD research, I heavily used signal processing techniques.  I did my master’s degree from Aalto University in Finland and my PhD from Eindhoven university of Technology in the Netherlands, all in the field of power systems.

Tell us, what drove you to take up such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

During my third year of undergraduate studies, I went to an NTPC power-plant for summer training of 8 weeks. I was impressed by the size and complexity of the systems designed to work continuously and synchronously to provide electrical energy to the society round the clock. It was then that I decided to make a career in power systems. I have always been looking to improve myself and took the opportunities when they came my way.  In the process I moved a lot. While doing my masters at Aalto University in Finland I got a nice opportunity to do my thesis project in a power-systems simulation lab at a university (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden. I decided to pack my bags and move to Sweden. This turned out to be a great decision because while working with Prof. Luigi Vanfretti I realized how much I enjoyed doing research independently and decided to pursue my doctoral studies. 

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

When I look back now, it seems like a natural flow of events. The curiosity of learning things in detail and applying them to solve research questions which I found interesting was the key. Before my final year in college, I had decided to make a career in power systems.  I joined Areva T&D in 2009 as an electrical engineer and worked on various projects where we built large substations which transfer power from the big power plants into the grid. Again, I was working on projects across India. 

While working at various projects at Areva, I met several power engineers at different powerplants with whom I had several interesting conversations about the plant and the power grid. During these conversations I also realized that I had a desire to learn more. I decided to pursue a master’s degree. I searched for research-based programs which are either free of cost or where I could get a scholarship. Luckily, I got into the master’s program at Aalto University in Finland which was free. I enjoyed studying at Aalto, and the freedom to choose my courses at any of the departments was liberating and exciting. During the summer and autumn of 2013, I was a teaching assistant as well as a research assistant at two different departments. 

As a part of the department of engineering design and production, I designed and built a system to melt and mold metallic glass (an extremely strong alloy which is resistant to wear and corrosion and hence is suitable material for many engineering applications). To melt a sample of metallica glass, a very high temperature, and hence a huge amount of energy is required. I designed and built an electrical circuit which would safely allow us to discharge a big capacitor via a sample of metallica glass. This discharge lasted for a few  hundred milliseconds leading to extraordinarily high currents ( about 2000 Amperes) and a heating rate of 2 mega kelvin per second.  This was sufficient to melt and mold the metallic glass sample. The system was tested successfully and a patent application was filed. While working on this project, I gained valuable experience of working in an electro-mechanical laboratory and learned skills which I still use in my daily life.  

As a teaching assistant for a graduate level course in Power electronics, I was responsible for problem solving and simulation classes. Given my fear of public speaking, this was something really out of my comfort zone. I also realized how much effort goes behind the scenes to teach a course. 

Working at two different departments made me realize how we use similar tools and techniques to solve different problems.  For my thesis work I got a great opportunity to move to KTH in Stockholm, Sweden. I got a glimpse of doing independent research while working at the power system simulation lab of Prof. Luigi Vanfretti. I was testing the synchronization of wide-area-measurement devices called PMUs. After my thesis, in 2015, I accepted a researcher’s position in the same lab at KTH to work on methods of detecting instability in the modern electrical grid which can cause disconnection and blackouts. I relearnt the signal-processing tools and this time I really enjoyed applying them. I enjoyed working with Luigi and he always encouraged me to realize my potential as a researcher. 

In 2016, I got a PhD position with funding from the prestigious Marie Curie Actions program. I moved to the Netherlands and started working on applying grid measurements to solve some problems of evolving electricity grids. The grid is moving from having conventional fossil fuel-based power plants towards smaller and distributed solar and wind energy-based sources. Dependency on renewables is great for the goal of decarbonization of electrical energy. However, this brings with it challenges in maintaining and operating the grid. I worked on a novel method which could help grid operators to transport a higher amount of generated power using the existing cable infrastructure. This would help in transporting more renewable power when there is a higher generation period and hence delay the investments to lay new cables.  

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break during the final year of my undergraduate studies. I had decided to work in the field of electrical power systems and attended the interview calls of companies which offered such a position. I had an option to choose between L&T and Areva T&D India. I chose the latter. 

I had to look for my second break when I decided to leave academia after my PhD in 2020 and move to the industry.  I had decided to stay in the Netherlands, so I was looking for roles in the domain of power system analytics and strategy within the country. One major obstacle for me however was that most of the power network operators and energy companies use Dutch as the working language and these roles required fluency in Dutch. I had taken some courses to learn Dutch and could use it at intermediate level. Still, I could not get the roles I was looking for. Knowing some Dutch did help me get a job as a project engineer at Stedin (one of the major network operators in NL). This was not something that I was aiming for, but I had no other options. My role at Stedin was to provide engineering solutions for projects related to power grids. In May 2021, while working at Stedin, I got an interview call from DNV (where I currently work as a senior researcher) for a position in the energy systems research department.  I was lucky because DNV had just resumed its hiring process after a gap of one year due to the covid pandemic. The role was very interesting, and the language of operation was English. I was selected after two rounds of interview. 

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

Sometimes I am a bit hesitant to talk about challenges I faced. I  tend to wonder if it would have been a challenge for somebody else in my place. The answer is always a No. But after thinking over it for some time I can mention a few.  

When I decided to study abroad, I had decided to do it with my own money. Therefore, I worked for three years after my bachelors’ studies. However, even after getting admit from popular US universities, I could not join them due to lack of money. Then I decided to look for programs in countries like Finland and Germany where there was no tuition fee at that time.  I got selected for a nice program at Aalto University in Finland without any tuition fee. 

The whole PhD experience was challenging for me. There were times when I wondered if I would be able to finish the work that I had started. I had difficulty closing those parts of the research which I found more interesting. In the end, communicating with my supervising professor helped me a lot to ration the time. 

Getting back to the industry after completing the PhD was also a challenge. I am always a bit hesitant to use contacts and my network to get a job. That makes the process even more difficult.  Another major hurdle was that most jobs needed some level of Dutch language skills. I was at an intermediate level but for most roles that was not enough. Also, the timing was not great, since many companies were freezing their hiring process in 2020 due to the uncertainties caused by the covid pandemic. What I did maybe is not something I would recommend. I took the first job offer I got and waited for the job which I liked. I took a job at Stedin where I had to do everything in Dutch. It really improved my Dutch skills. My Dutch language skills certainly gave me an upper hand when I applied to my current job where knowledge of Dutch is a ‘good to have’ skill. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

Since 2021, I am working in DNV Netherlands as senior researcher in the field of energy systems. DNV is a reputed name in risk assurance and certifications. My role is to work towards de-risking the digitalization of modern electrical energy systems by testing and validating the new digital assets such as control algorithms and digital models of the system.  One of the problems I am working towards is to assess the negative impact of electric vehicle charging on the residential electricity grid and how EV charging will impact other assets and phenomena such as solar panels and cost of electricity. I am also involved in projects to test and validate models of different kinds of controllers for solar and wind parks. 

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Sometimes the work could be interdisciplinary, and so we need to explore the subject ourselves. One of the important skills for this position is the flexibility to quickly learn about new technologies and services in the field of energy systems. Collaborating with different researchers and organizations gives us more visibility and makes our cause stronger. Having and maintaining a good network of colleagues within and outside the organization can be a great help. In corporate research we want to create services for our business. For this we must also think about the future, about the things which are not being talked about right now but might become important later on, so that we can prepare ourselves in time. Hence, a mindset to see the bigger picture and think ahead to evolve continuously is also important.

What I love about my current job is that I get to work with multiple research and government organizations on very interesting and important topics concerning the transition of energy systems for a sustainable future. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Finding sustainable ways to generate, store and transfer energy has become paramount to conserving our planet for the future generations. I work on projects in the field of energy systems which are evolving rapidly in order to reach the sustainability goals set by different stakeholders and governments. To achieve these goals, the means of energy production and usage as we know them today, especially for electricity, will change drastically in the coming decades. Our team works with different stakeholders to investigate the impacts of these changes and provides services to test and validate new solutions to make this energy transition smoother. 

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

During my PhD, I was working on a problem to find a new method to estimate the temperature of a power-cable in real-time. This cable is used to transfer large amounts of power, for example from a wind-park to the urban areas. Each cable comes with a current carrying limit which is limited by its temperature. The current rating for the cable is calculated assuming continuous constant current. However, power from wind and solar parks depends on the wind and solar irradiance which is intermittent and non-continuous. This temperature is not reached easily by the cables that are carrying intermittent power. Hence, it is still possible to transfer higher than rated current albeit for a shorter time-period. 

So, estimates of  the temperature of the cable in real-time could then be utilized to safely increase the transfer capacity of that cable till its temperature has reached the limit. This would increase the harvesting of renewable energy without investing in additional infrastructure. However, it is very difficult and expensive to use temperature sensors  along the cable to monitor its temperature. I was able to show how that cable temperature could be monitored accurately just by using frequent high-quality voltage and current measurements and without any temperature measuring equipment. When the method was applied to a real high voltage cable in operation, the results were highly satisfactory. I was very pleased with my effort and results I achieved. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

You have got time in your hands. Do not give in to the peer pressure of doing things in a certain way and at a certain time. Try to find out something you really enjoy. In this process do not be afraid to explore new things.  And do not worry if things do not go as you had planned.  Be positive and you would always find another way to fulfill your ambitions. 

Future Plans?

For now, I intend to stay at DNV in the field of research in energy systems. I want to work on and explore more about various upcoming technologies to generate, store and use green electrical energy. I want to work on projects demonstrating the electrification of sectors like industry and transport.