Our long-term goal is to find ways to increase the share of RES (Renewable Energy Sources) in the present energy scenario. 

Soumya Das, our next pathbreaker, Researcher at the Department of Solar Power Systems at the Institute for Energy Technology (IFE, Norway), works primarily on renewable energy (Solar PV, Wind) and the integration of energy storage (battery) with the power grid.

Soumya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being bitten by the research bug while working as an electrical engineer and subsequently doing his PhD on the development of computationally efficient techniques for Transmission Network Expansion Planning (TNEP). 

For students, the field of electrical energy is throwing up several operational and technical challenges which require a research driven mindset !

Soumya, Your background?

I grew up in the small and quiet town of Kharagpur in West Bengal, India. Many readers might know about Kharagpur (KGP) for its famous Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). My schooling from kindergarten till higher secondary (10+2) was at two schools located inside the huge IIT KGP campus. Those school days influenced me quite a bit in choosing my career path. The way to school from my home was through the IIT campus. Whenever I used to travel to my school, either with my father or on my little bicycle passing by the marvellous IIT buildings and watching its students engage in different activities, I was always awestruck and dreamt of being like them, studying technology. Almost every other day I could get some glimpses of the large pieces of machinery inside the laboratories which were exposed by the huge windows. The view of the unknown, yet fascinating machines and tools, and the activities of the students who were working with them, imparted within me a deep desire to pursue that path. In a way, the wonderful vibe of the IIT Kharagpur campus left a great mark on my life. 

My father was a bank employee and retired now, and my mother is a housewife. Both come from modest families. My father grew up in a small village. In the early days, he had to overcome extreme poverty and numerous difficulties to study and establish himself in life. His life stories inspired me to grow a keen interest in studying. From a very young age, I developed a habit of reading different books outside of the school syllabus. They ranged from comics to fantasy, from sci-fi to thrillers to adventures to children’s magazines. Almost all genres of books appropriate for my age were on my bookshelves. I mainly read books in Bangla. They inspired me, facilitated the development of my outlook towards life, and filled my childhood with joy. I still feel the warmth those books spread in my life. With me growing up, my time for storybooks reduced as I had to devote much time to school studies. This happened mainly in classes 10 to 12. Even then, Sunday afternoons were always reserved for leisurely reading. Also, playing was a big part of my childhood activities. Almost every afternoon there was a 3-hour playtime for me, till class 8. I mainly played cricket with occasional football practices. I don’t remember if I and my friends left any playground untouched in my neighbourhood. Such was the craze that even if playing meant that I should ride my bicycle for 5 km, so be it! From class 9 onwards, my playtime slowly reduced, though I still managed to spare some time on the weekends, especially on Saturday mornings. However, in school, I was a shy student—known to close friends, but relatively unknown to teachers and classmates!

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed my Bachelor of Technology (BTech) in Electrical Engineering at Jalpaiguri Government Engineering College (JGEC), Jalpaiguri and my Master of Engineering in Electrical Engineering (MEE) from Jadavpur University (JU), Kolkata. Later, I did my PhD in Energy Studies from IIT Delhi.  

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

As I said, I developed a keen interest in science and technology from a very young age. I wanted to establish my career in this field. With this aim, I completed my graduation as well as post-graduation, and then started my first job at the West Bengal State Electricity Transmission Company Limited (WBSETCL) as Assistant Engineer (Electrical). It was going all fine there, but then, the most dramatic turning point in my career came with the decision of leaving that job to pursue my dream of doing a PhD. WBSETCL is a prestigious state-government company, additionally, we all know how a stable government job is viewed in India compared to doing a PhD, but some decisions in life require you to listen to your heart rather than your brain and take a leap of faith! This was such a decision and my toughest till now. I think my career path would have been way different from the present if I hadn’t dared to leave my job at that time.  

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

Frankly speaking, I could never plan for more than a year in advance. Specifically, even though I have broader goals in my mind, I tend to divide them into very small steps and be successful in overcoming them one by one. When I was in the 10th standard, I focused only on the goal of doing well in the secondary exam, so that I can qualify for the science stream at the 11th standard, nothing more. During my 12th standard, I pressed my attention towards getting into an engineering course at a good institute. That’s it. I don’t believe in competing with classmates or friends over exam marks, but the principle I have followed and still follow in life is that one must compete with oneself. I have always tried to perform better in the later exams compared to my previous exams. 

I would not say that I was a weak student at school, but the IIT JEE was a tough nut to crack due to the differences between my school board and IIT JEE syllabi. So, instead of also trying my luck at IIT JEE along with West Bengal JEE, I decided to devote my entire focus to the latter. I managed to rank quite well in the WB JEE with this strategy. It allowed me to either choose engineering courses in expensive private colleges near home, or opt for nominally charged, but excellent state government colleges far away. At this point, my decision was clear—I did not want to put any significant financial burden on my parents for my studies, so going to a government engineering college was set. I chose to study electrical engineering at JGEC. Given that Jalpaiguri is in the northern part of Bengal, and the distance between Kharagpur and Jalpaiguri is around 700 km, choosing JGEC for my bachelor’s degree was a tough decision. I credit this to my habit of reading various books from all spheres of life, which certainly made it possible for me to look beyond my self-interests from a very young age. 

Intending to pursue higher studies/research after my graduation, I focused on cracking the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) starting from the third year of my bachelor’s study. Running after jobs in campus interviews was never on my agenda. Although I did get a job offer at a leading IT company during the first round of campus placements, I never felt like I should join the company after my graduation. So, my career kicked off with me rejecting a great job offer! Conversely, on the first attempt at GATE, I secured a good enough rank to have a chance at the premier state and central universities for my master’s study. I opted for admission to the MEE course at Jadavpur University. My specialization was in power systems. During my master’s, I sustained myself with the scholarship that I received from the university. So, in a way, I became financially independent at quite an early age. At JU, my research was on developing methodologies for the efficient solution for Optimal Power Flow (OPF) problems, which is a quintessential aspect in the successful operation of any electrical power system. I gradually developed an interest in obtaining practical, hands-on experience in the operation of a real power system. In this regard, I am indebted to my supervisor at JU, Prof. Swapan K. Goswami who used to say that theoretical education is never complete without practical experience. According to him, for power engineers, industry experience is very essential. Therefore, I started applying to several public and private power companies as per his advice and received an employment offer from the WBSETCL as Assistant Engineer (Electrical). 

My job location was at Contai 132/33/11 kV sub-station as its Engineer-in-Charge (EIC), with more than 30 people of different technical calibres working under my direct supervision. There, I had the opportunity to experience the operational activity of a real power system up close. It was thrilling, to say the least. Execution of big installation and commissioning projects, and operation and maintenance of large power equipment allowed me to gain extremely valuable practical knowledge that is impossible to get with only theoretical studies. Being the EIC, I also developed substantial leadership, team management, administrative and problem-solving skills. These various types of technical and administrative skills have aided me tremendously in overcoming various challenges in my life at later stages. 

But the research bug bit me for the second time in my life, and I quit the job just after working for 2 years. I strongly intended to pursue a PhD and was excited to start my research journey. However, after leaving my job I realized that even though I had developed my technical and managerial skills profoundly during my time at WBSETCL, my theoretical knowledge had become quite rusty. So, I focused on improving it and prepared for almost half a year. During this time, as a part of my preparation, I worked for a short duration at IIT Kharagpur on a couple of projects. One was involved in a study on the stability and performance of PV, and the other was on FACTS controllers. The skills developed by working on these projects were later useful in my PhD as well.

Nonetheless, I got admission to a PhD programme at the Centre for Energy Studies, IIT Delhi. My research topic was the development of computationally efficient techniques for Transmission Network Expansion Planning (TNEP) studies. 

My research focused on the future planning of high-voltage (≥66 kV) transmission networks. For example, a few years into the future, the energy demand is bound to increase, and so will the power generation, through the construction of different power plants. This will result in increased power flow through the existing transmission lines and may cause overloading in certain parts of the network, which should be avoided. Thus, the transmission infrastructure must be adequately planned to handle such increased power flow in the future. Such planning problems are extremely complex and require complex computational techniques to solve. My PhD research focused on this specific area. Several techniques and methodologies were developed for efficient solutions to different TNEP problems involving power generation by conventional, as well as uncertain Renewable Energy Sources (RES). 

The ample guidance and support provided by my supervisors Prof. Ashu Verma and Prof. Pradeep R Bijwe helped me in solving tough planning problems. In addition, the life lessons given by Prof. Bijwe during numerous informal discussions were invaluable assets that boosted my enthusiasm and confidence whenever I felt low. For a short period after PhD, I was a postdoctoral research associate at IIT Delhi, where I continued further research on TNEP. 

By the fifth year of my PhD, I started applying for postdoctoral positions at various universities abroad. Just after my final thesis submission, I received an offer from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) for a postdoctoral position at the Department of Electric Power Engineering. The related project was on the development of planning methodologies for microgrids and distribution networks in Norway. It was an Indo-Norwegian research project sponsored by the Research Council of Norway (RCN), with several Indian and Norwegian academic and industrial partners. This was an exciting opportunity that I didn’t want to miss. So, I rejected a decent job offer in India and travelled to Trondheim, Norway. The time was just before the Covid pandemic outbreak. Within a month of reaching Trondheim, when the project was gaining momentum, there was a lockdown. During this period, I received great support from my supervisor, Prof. Olav B Fosso and my colleagues at NTNU. Over the next couple of years, I completed the project with some encouraging outcomes, which included the development of novel network planning methodologies for the siting, and sizing of wind turbines. The methods were successfully tested on a couple of benchmark systems and a practical Norwegian distribution system. This gave me exposure to the Norwegian industry, their practices and research. It was exciting to see my research being implemented in actual industrial planning. As a result, after my postdoc, I started looking for similar jobs where my research could form the bridge between academia and industry. Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) offered me the right opportunity at this point for advancing my career. 

How did you get your first break?

I would say that the first break in my career was getting admission to the PhD programme at IIT Delhi. It set my career path in the energy sector and facilitated in securing a postdoctoral position at NTNU after my PhD.

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

Challenge 1: 

The first significant challenge in my life was leaving the comforts of my home to pursue a bachelor’s degree at JGEC. The early days at JGEC were not easy. Dealing with a new and altogether different form of teaching compared to school, tough subjects, ‘not-so-friendly’ seniors, and an unknown environment put up a steep learning curve for me. However, post the initial break-in period, I enjoyed my college life. I can confidently say that JGEC shaped the very foundation of what I am today. 

Challenge 2: 

The second challenge came when I left my job at WBSETCL to pursue a PhD. During this phase of my life, I was fortunate enough to always find the support of my wife and her parents by my side. Their constant encouragement and belief in my dream helped me to pass through those tough times with ease. Such support becomes even more important when you know that you are moving towards an unsure life from a so-called ‘settled life’ at only about one-third of the monthly income! 

Challenge 3

Towards the fourth year of my PhD, I was into finding efficient solution techniques for mixed-integer nonlinear problems faced in power system expansion planning studies. This required computer simulations to run for days, and the most interesting part was, I could not know about the accuracy of the solution until the entire simulation was over. So, even to realize an error in the programming, I had to wait for a long time. This caused a lot of time spent on trial and error, without even reaching a feasible solution. After about six-seven months being spent, I started to believe that it is not possible to find a solution in this way. I was even thinking of giving up, but it was only with my perseverance and determination that I could finally solve the problem and get it published in a journal. That was nothing short of a “hurrah” moment for me.

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

Currently, I work as a researcher at the Department of Solar Power Systems at the Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) in Norway. 

What problems do you solve?

I work primarily on renewable energy (solar PV, wind) and the integration of energy storage (battery) with the power grid. The goal is to find ways to increase the share of RES (Renewable Energy Sources) in the present energy scenario. Much of the work also involves research on the techno-economic feasibility and development of optimization techniques for the efficient operation of future hybrid power plants. 

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

As my present job involves research, development and providing consultation, it requires an extensive and deep understanding of the different RES, the economics of power systems and their operations, and optimization techniques. 

I would say that the development of these skills happened gradually over my entire career, particularly, during my PhD and postdoc. In addition, my experience of operating actual power equipment in the industry allowed me to gain a holistic view required for the successful planning and execution of new power projects.

What’s a typical day like?

My day starts with evaluating the appointments that I have for the day. Technical meetings, meetings with industrial partners, and brainstorming sessions form a large part of my typical workday. No matter how busy I am, I try to carve out a dedicated focus time of around 2 hours daily when I read research papers on the recent advances in my field of work. This keeps me informed about the latest trends and state-of-art technologies. Usually, I return home at around 6 pm, after which I love to watch movies and read books. 

What is it you love about this job?

The best thing about this job is that I can directly apply my understanding, knowledge, and technical skills to the development and execution of projects that benefit society. Also, the independence of research that I experience here, the wonderful colleagues, and a great work-life balance make me love my job to the fullest.

How does your work benefit society? 

At IFE, my work involves research on decreasing the world’s dependence on fossil fuels for energy needs. It investigates the possibility of installing renewable and hybrid (solar + wind + hydro + battery) power plants on a large scale, and their effective utilization and seamless integration with the existing power grid. With our projects being located in different parts of the world, my research directly benefits society as we are trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. It gives me immense joy to know that my research is contributing significantly towards achieving the goal of a sustainable, greener future.

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

Although there are many such memorable instances, this is my favourite, particularly because it is from the early days of my research career. In the 2nd year of my MEE, when there were barely about four months left for my thesis submission, I noticed that my program was producing inconsistent results. At certain times, the results were obtained quickly, while it took a lot of time for other cases. I was unable to find an error in the program even after repeated searches for weeks. Then one evening, I was having a friendly chat with my apartment friends, when suddenly the discussion took an intellectual turn towards random numbers. I suddenly realized after a while that there might be an issue with the random dimension selection mechanism that I am using in my program. As with any random selection mechanism, it is a possibility, however small, that one dimension may remain completely untouched in some cases over the entire simulation period, and thus produce inconsistent results! It was such a little thing, yet my realization was so profound. At that instant itself, I returned to my room, took out my laptop and modified the program to include all the dimensional changes sequentially. To my pleasant surprise, the results were amazing. Most of the remaining tasks of my project were then completed within just a fortnight. To date, I thank my fellow friends that somehow on that evening we started discussing random numbers out of the blue!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Nowadays, I see kids start preparing for competitive examinations at a very young age with encouragement from their families. In my opinion, such things are not only ruining the childhood of the kids but also limiting their overview of life. Life is not about competing and being successful at specific exams. It is much more than that. More than competing with others, one should remember to improve upon their performance. To achieve a larger goal, form a framework, divide it into smaller goals, and focus on conquering them one at a time. Persistence, perseverance, and determination are the three ingredients for success. Try to expand your boundaries, but also remember that you should enjoy your work. Nurture your hobbies, study what you love the most, be confident, and sometimes it is important to listen to your heart. Never run away from the challenges, face them head-on with all your strength, and you will surely overcome them. 

Future Plans?

I am enjoying my present work. It provides me with the opportunity to apply my research to real-world scenarios, which has always been my dream. Therefore, I would like to improve my skills further and dive into immersive research on the integration of renewable energy sources to realise a carbon-neutral future.