Environmental Data Science is unleashing the power of data analysis to address pressing challenges around water conservation, climate change, green energy and emergency response to natural hazards.
Aashish Bharadwaj, our next pathbreaker, Generation and Optimization Analyst at Brookfield Renewable (Canada), creates energy models to evaluate power generation from hydroelectric, wind and solar assets.
Aashish talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his work on water conservation using digital tools and a memorable project in which he built a tool that assesses the impact of recent flooding in southeast Asia in near-real-time to estimate the damage to human lives and their livelihood.
For students, environmental data is a lot more complex than what we can ever imagine, and the question is how can we glean insights from what the data is telling us, to make our society more liveable !
Aashish, Your background?
I was born and raised in a family of Doctors and Engineers. My father is an Engineer from HBTI Kanpur who retired as Executive Director from Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited. My mother was an art teacher in St. Margaret Sr. Sec School. With my parent’s vision and guidance, I grew up as an Engineer with an artistic mindset. I have an MSc degree in Hydroinformatics and have BTech in Civil Engineering. I always had an interest in analyzing data and understanding ways to visualize the same. With emerging technological advances and a growing database, I had the luxury of applying those skills in my field of work. My extracurricular activities include Chess, Table Tennis and Swimming. I enjoy life as it comes and lives with a motto that learning is a continuous process.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I graduated from Maharshi Dayanand University. I studied Civil and Environmental Engineering, and following my interest in hydrology, I went ahead to pursue a master’s in Hydro Informatics from a fully sponsored scholarship program by the European Union. This program is hosted by a consortium of institutes namely, UNESCO-IHE Delft, TU Dresden, UPC Barcelona and the University of Ljubljana.
What were the influencers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I was very lucky to have great mentors and influences within my family and at the workplace. I have two professional gurus who were my bosses in previous firms. They helped me shape my career and progress with their continuous guidance. In 2015, I had to choose to go for a master’s or continue with an ongoing stable job. Together with the support of my family and well-wishers, I decided to do further studies and I can’t thank them enough for helping me take that decision as that came out to be a significant turning point in my life.
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
My first internship during my bachelors was at Columbia Water Center (India) which encouraged me to pursue Water as my field of interest and also develop a research mindset that allowed me to come up with innovative solutions. From there I decided to keep water as my core field with data science as a tool to help develop a novel approach to building and designing state-of-art methods.
At Columbia Water Center, I was responsible for finding demand side water conservation strategies which can be implemented at rural level. For this, I was asked to research the market for inexpensive soil moisture sensors and Tensiometers. A Tensiometer is a tool for monitoring soil moisture conditions in agriculture. When I studied the market, I realized that these sensors were very expensive, and a normal farmer may not be able to afford the same. Then I came up with the strategy on how these sensors could be manufactured for free at regional scale. I made a sensor myself which costed less than Rs 5 whereas the cheapest sensor in the market was $10 USD or more. These sensors could have been made and assembled at the university level where students could be given a summer project to manufacture these sensors (costing Rs 5 or less) and then supplying it to local farmers. This way students will learn new technologies and farmers can make use of the same for free.
After finishing my internship at Columbia water Center, I received highest grades in my university for making such a contribution. Following this, I was offered a job at Suez Environnement where my colleague from Columbia Water Center recently joined and gave a good recommendation for me. Therefore, I say that internships open a lot of doors for young graduates if done in a good way. I also got two other job offers because of the work I did at Columbia Water Center. The project at Suez Environnement was related to urban water distribution where I joined as Non-Revenue Water (NRW) Engineer (a skill which is still limited but looked upon by utilities pan India). Non revenue water (NRW) is water that has been produced and is “lost” before it reaches the customer. Losses can be real losses (through leaks, sometimes also referred to as physical losses) or apparent losses (for example through theft or metering inaccuracies).
The goal of the job was to reduce NRW to less than 15% (as originally it was around 90%). This could be understood in a way that if a utility spends Rs 100 for providing customers potable water, they should at least get Rs 85 as return which is corresponding to 15% NRW. 15% NRW is attributed to line losses (leakages) and water theft. With novel approaches using helium leak detection, we were able to trace leakages in the pilot project area and provide clean water 24 hours to households. As pipelines were not subjected to leaks, we were able to provide water head of 17 m which means that the house owner doesn’t even need to run a pump to get this water in the overhead tank. With this pressure, water will easily reach the overhead tank of a four-story building. I also built a state-of-the-art tool called water meter test bench and also procured water pipe detection tools and pipeline survey cameras.
After working for almost 2-years at Suez, I moved to Veolia Water where the project was bigger but had similar Key Performance Index (KPIs). So, in terms of work, it was very similar to that of Suez, however the region and stakeholders were different. It was more of a rural based project, so we had to come up with better and advanced ways to deal with our client’s needs. Though there was lot to learn on this project, I had to leave the organization for further studies abroad.
My masters program was in Hydro-Informatics which was jointly offered by a consortium of 4-universities in Europe. It was a fully funded program by the European Union and they normally select only one student per country for such a program. To enhance my visibility and also learn more about the industry, I voluntarily applied for an internship at Deltares. Deltares is an independent institute for applied research in the field of water and subsurface.
During this internship I not only focused on the project in hand but also on ways to build a long term association with the organization. For this, I volunteered to organize a youth event for Deltares at the Flood Risk Conference 2016 in Lyon, France. I raised funds for the event and successfully organized the same. I was also able to get selected for a thesis project with Deltares which would ensure 6-8 months collaboration with them. During my thesis, I tried to look for opportunities to collaborate with other dutch institutes, namely KNMI (Dutch Meteorological Institute and universities such as TU-Delft). During this period I was also selected for a student exchange program in Beijing China where I had a fully sponsored visit to Tsinghua University for two weeks. Towards the end of my thesis I was also offered a PhD option at UPC-Barcelona (one of the partner institutes for my masters). Also, because of my long term association with Deltares, I was able to secure position as a junior advisor in the organization.
After almost two years at Deltares, I planned to move to Canada as I wanted to bring my parents abroad for long-term stay. This was only possible in Canada at that point. So I applied for my Permanent Residency in Canada and moved there towards the end of 2019. When I moved here, I was lucky to receive few job offers at different organizations across Canada (from government and non-government). I worked for few months with Golder Associates where I was working with them on Tsunami modelling and other water resources projects. Then I received a job offer from Brookfield Renewable which allowed me to work in the green energy sector namely, hydropower, hydrogen, solar and wind.
Hydro-Informatics allows water engineers to utilize the best available tools for data analysis. In water projects, we deal with a lot of time series analysis data. So, knowledge of tools such as python, R-programming, MATLAB, Alteryx among others, makes it easier for professionals to do regression plots, forecasting, data-driven modelling etc.
How did you get your first break?
I think it is very important to develop a network and ask your seniors for guidance. People are always there to help and we must not hesitate to ask for the same. My first internship was through my head of Department at university, my first job was through a colleague and my guru, who I met through the internship. My second job was through another colleague and senior who worked with me in my first company. My master’s program was introduced to me by a senior in my first company who went for a similar program a few weeks after I joined the first company. And this continues. The key skill here is networking.
My first job after masters was through my connections and rapport I built during my thesis at Deltares. I spent roughly 8-months in the organization and that helped me understand how it functions. A good recommendation from my advisors during the thesis helped me crack the interview with the department head.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
At a different point in life there were different challenges:
Money: I knew pursuing a master’s was important, but equally important is to get financial support for the same. Getting a car or home loan is much easier and inexpensive in our country than taking an education loan. Therefore, taking that path was a no go from the start. My family, through very tough means, gathered a sum to support my studies initially, and with god’s grace, I was able to return it within 6-months as I received a 100% scholarship with a stipend to support my living abroad.
Finding a Job in Europe: No sooner did I realize I had the funds to survive the master’s, the second challenge came right ahead from the fact that it is quite difficult to find a job in Europe. The common difficulties include finding a company that can not only sponsor your visa but also doesn’t have strict language requirements. As they say, the earlier you start the better, I started looking for internship opportunities during summer break. Again, through really tough setbacks, I was able to get an unpaid internship where I could prove my skills and learn from others. That internship opened the door for me and helped me secure a thesis opportunity in the same organization. Then again with some great effort and support from colleagues, I could turn that master’s thesis into a full-time job.
Living abroad alone: That’s also an ongoing challenge for me as my parents are still in India and I wanted to bring them here. I realized this was nearly impossible in Europe, so I decided to move to Canada so that I at least can try to have them live with me permanently.
Where do you work now? What problems do you address?
I work for Brookfield (Renewable Renewable Energy Sector) with a focus on Hydropower, Hydrogen Cells, Solar and Wind Energy. Brookfield Renewable operates one of the world’s largest publicly traded, pure-play renewable power platforms, with a portfolio that consists of hydroelectric, wind, solar and storage facilities in North America, South America, Europe and Asia.
I help my team with long-term data and trend analysis. I build automation systems and solve optimization problems.
The world is moving towards a “zero-emissions” strategy and organizations world-wide are looking for ways to cut their carbon emissions. While working in the renewables sector, we get the opportunities to deal with such organizations, understand their day-to-day energy requirements and help them cut their emissions by providing power from renewable energy assets. As a generation and optimization advisor at Brookfield, I need to create energy models to estimate how much our assets can produce, optimize the production so that it matches with fluctuating demand, and search for acquiring or building new renewable assets for the organization.
These skills were acquired through online courses, on-the-job training and previous experiences. My typical day starts at 8 am at my workplace and focusing on high-priority projects. These projects mostly include in-depth analysis of data and building tools to help stakeholders and senior management make sound decisions. I think I have always been lucky to have great seniors and reporting managers. That’s what makes me feel comfortable at my job.
How does your work benefit society?
All the jobs I pursued were related to fighting the impacts of climate change and making this society more liveable. I mainly focus on issues around Water and Green Energy which are the most important aspects of one’s life. This work helps me feel good about the fact that I am giving back to society.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
A specific memorable work I did was for a World Bank-funded project on Disaster Risk Management and Finance. I, along with my team, built a tool that assesses the impact of recent flooding in southeast Asia in near-real-time and estimates the damage to human lives and their livelihood. This quick and reasonable estimate allowed donor agencies and government bodies to release relief funds in a spontaneous schedule, thereby helping society re-build better.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I would suggest that you should not only focus on your classroom studies but also look for training and Internship opportunities during your studies. This will allow you to gain some real-life industry experience which would further help you shape your career.
I would like to continue to grow and flourish in my field of interest. This would include long-term learning strategies to enhance my skills and learn as I go along on my path to success.