Episode Notes | Transcript | AskTheGuest

Episode Notes

Episode Title: What is Renewable Energy? With Prof. Mads Almassalkhi, University of Vermont.

Episode summary introduction: The goal of this series is to serve as a primer for High Schoolers about a Major, through our conversations with Faculty Experts in the various US Colleges and Universities.

We continue this series with Renewable Energy, with Mads Almassalkhi, Associate Professor in Electrical Engineering and the Director of the Control and Optimization Renewable Energy (CORE) Systems Lab at the University of Vermont.

In particular, we discuss the following with him:

  • What is Renewable Energy?
  • A Brief History of Renewable Energy?
  • Renewable Energy Technologies
  • Skills Needed to Study Renewable Energy
  • Opportunities in Renewable Energy

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Introducing Prof. Mads Almassalkhi, University of Vermont [0:53]
  • What is Renewable Energy? [3:15]
  • History of Renewable Energy [8:24]
  • Importance of Renewable Energy [10:32]
  • Renewable Energy Technologies  [13:57]
  • Hot Developments [18:14]
  • Skills Needed to Pursue Renewable Energy [25:03]
  • Selecting Renewable Energy in College [32:02]
  • Career Opportunities [36:15]
  • Path for Non-STEM Students [38:12]
  • Prof Almassalkhi’s Renewable Energy Journey [41:11]

Our Guest: Mads Almassalkhi is the Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and BioMedical Engineering at the University of Vermont. Prof. Almassalkhi is the head of the CORE Lab at UVM. Prof. Almassalkhi is also a co-founder of a startup, Packetized Energy.

Memorable Quote: “...if you're good at communicating, if you're good at math and physics, if you're good at software algorithms, or if you just have a knack for tinkering, you can solve many problems with any of these four skills.” Prof. Almassalkhi to High Schoolers.

Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.

Suggestions for you: STEM Podcasts.


Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

<Start Snippet> Prof Almassalkhi  0:14  

I would, I would say the one thing that kind of pains me a bit in, in the, in the discussion of renewable energies that it often falls on the shoulders of or on the years of folks that it must be a STEM field or something like the science, technology engineering or mathematics. Right. And and I think that's a fallacy that probably will, something we've got, we're gonna pay for it in the future when all the folks who may not be in STEM essentially checks out of the renewable energy arena.

Venkat  0:53  [Introducing Prof Mads Almassalkhi, UVM]

That is Mads Almassalkhi, Associate Professor in Electrical Engineering and the Director of the Control and Optimization Renewable Energy (CORE) Systems Lab at the University of Vermont.

Hello, I am your host, Venkat Raman.

Today’s episode is on Renewable Energy, in our special podcast series on “College Majors” to serve as a Primer for High Schoolers.

Renewable Energy has become an Existential Challenge of our times.

How do we power our daily needs in a way that the sources of that power, do not diminish or deplete so as to deprive future generations?

The renewable and clean energy sources are solar, wind, wave and hydro.

Renewable Energy is a Multi-Disciplinary effort to harness these sources of energy by bringing together technology, society and government.

Prof Mads Almassalkhi joins us on our podcast to give us an Introduction to Renewable Energy through the lens of technology.

In this Podcast, Prof Almassalkhi first explains what Renewable Energy is, and then takes us through a brief history of RE, The Technology underpinnings, hot research areas, the preparation needed to study RE in College and the available opportunities when you graduate.

So, without further ado, here’s Prof Almassalkhi!


Venkat Raman  2:17  

First of all, Mads, it's great to have you on this podcast, I am really looking forward to this topic, personally, as well. I think, talking about renewable energy, and what high schoolers of today might be able to do for tomorrow, I think it's a very exciting topic. And it's great to have you a pioneer in this area to talk to us. So welcome. Welcome to the podcast.

Mads  2:43  

Thank you. Thank you.

Venkat Raman  2:46  

Absolutely, absolutely. So I thought what we could do is sort of in some sort of a primitive form, just go through some of the highlights of renewable energy so that a listener can get an idea of what it's all about, and hopefully inspire them to pursue this area. So maybe we can start at the top with what is renewable energy? What what does it all mean?

Mads  3:15  [What is Renewable Energy?]

Yeah, so renewable energy has become a hot topic recently. And maybe it's good to define it before we discuss it too much. Right? It's a renewable renewable energies kind of in the name as an energy source that is renewable. And usually, that means it's not a fossil fuel. It's not something you can take out of the ground, for which there is a finite resource. And in some cases, even if it's finite, it could be a lot of it. But in the end, in the case of, for example, wind and solar, or wave energy, those resources are renewable and replenished when the sun rises when the wind blows, and when the waves come in. And so in that sense, you know, those are kind of the core renewable energy resources that we we think of and debate and discuss and, and hear about very often is really solar and wind, and sometimes you hear about wave energy, but I actually forgot to mention, you know, the first the earliest and the role of hydro. Yeah, hydro reservoirs and hydropower, which, of course, is also a renewable energy source.

Venkat Raman  4:28  

So how does this all fit in the general academic arena, I mean, in a sense How do we think of it, can we categorize it, classify it? How does one sort of hang their hat on this, so to speak?

Mads  4:42  

So that I think that's a very good question. So I think if you talk to mechanical engineers, they'll say they're the ones who deal with renewable energy, or electrical engineers, they'll say they're the ones that deal with renewable energy. And when you talk to civil and environmental engineers, they'll tell you that they do renewable energy right And the funny thing is, is no one is lying. Right? And so renewable energy is a multidisciplinary topic, it's a topic you can approach from many different angles, even outside of engineering. Sure. And so, you know, within an academic framework, you know, it really can come from anywhere. And I haven't even talked about, you know, psychology could come from economics, those of us or those students who enjoy political science into renewable energy within an academic context. And so I, you know, I think it fits everywhere, if you want to pursue it, right. So, so, yeah, that would be my general answer.

Venkat Raman  5:44  

And then outside of sort of engineering, you mentioned, obviously, some of these areas, how does one think of, in the larger context of a society, of governments and governance, right? How does all this kind of fit into all the policies and other things? How do you see all that?

Mads  6:05  

So so when I when I teach, so I teach electrical engineering, and I teach a couple of undergraduate courses in power and energy, what renewable energy involves, right, and and there we have, you know, physics are important when you study renewable energy and what can be Yeah, engineering is important. Behave, human behavior is important. Some of the trickiest problems to solve are not necessarily technical problems, but really human problems. And so almost regardless of where you are you people like the topics like wind farms, where should they be placed your topics around solar PV arrays, where should they be placed, and it sometimes you have local opposition to renewable energy projects. And that's when it becomes the job of politicians and local community activists to slowly kindly and in a human friendly fashion, the benefits near term and long term from having these renewable plants, and then they should be constructed in a manner that is, recognizes that folks who live too close to wind turbines may have annoying sounds and people who live very close to wind turbines may start solar arrays may be bothered by the kind of cool sleek blackness, that when that solar PV arrays do offer. But not everyone likes the same art, that everyone likes the same renewable energies, you know, left versus right, or green versus blue, or whatever I'm gonna call it, it's not really helpful. And so if we want to solve big societal problems, we have to have a place and a venue where we can discuss things and the classroom is often one place where I think, at least in my classroom, where you can certainly do so.

Venkat Raman  8:08  

What's the history of renewable energy? I mean, when did it roughly start? When did all this movement, gain steam, so to speak? So what's what's sort of your feel about the last 50 years? However you want to characterize it.

Mads  8:24  [History of Renewable Energy]

And so one of the earliest parts of the grid we know of today, the electricity infrastructure was out of not out fossil fuel plants, but really out of hydropower up in New York, the Niagara Falls powered the first real grid in in the world, in New York. And that was kind of the beginning of power systems or energy systems as we know them today, or electricity infrastructure. And so 150 years later, now, we're facing a problem where we're trying to make the grid renewable again. And so solar wind has been around for, you know, wind has been around for a long time, we used wind to, to mill our power. Yeah, we've been using the wind and wave power, a run of river, power, to power all kinds of agricultural purposes. You know, in the last, in 60s 70s, and 80s, when people talk about solar power that was, you know, the hippie uncle in the middle of nowhere using solar power to manage his or her whatever. lifestyle, and high solar power has become cheek, and it's, you know, it's the thing that you do in California, it's the thing you do in in the quote unquote, cool places. You have Elon Musk, you know, like talking about solar power. You have all kinds of folks talking about it today. So it's been 150 years. And, you know, it started renewable. And now we're in a place where the next 10 years look to be the decade of renewable energy as it grows year on year by incredible rates.

Venkat Raman  10:18  

Why is renewable energy important? Why are, you know, obviously lots of protests and there's a lot of resistance and friction, So why is it so important to move forward with this?

Mads  10:32  [Importance of Renewable Energy]

So that's I think that's a that's a fair question. And for me, the answer is grounded in the truth and the fact that is climate change. And so, you know, I think we just had two weeks of, I guess you would call it a circus, called COP 26. in Glasgow, yes, yeah. Where hundreds of maybe 1000s of politicians and enthusiasts and other folks spend time discussing this exact topic, you know, how do we mitigate the effects of climate change on this planet? And the overarching requirement? Is renewable energy integration. We have to get rid of fossil fuels, not just for electricity generation, but also for other sectors agriculture and transportation, building industry. And so do you how do we d car as fast as possible to ensure that the planet we live on genetics, it's like get too hot, or basically damaged the the livelihood that we know of today. Renewable energy integration is the key driver to enable that change. And so what this means from, from my perspective, and those of a number of scientists around the world is we need to integrate terawatts of renewable energy. If we do not do that, we will not be able to mitigate the change of the climate change going forward for the next couple decades. So is that important that I think there's there are not many other problems more important over the next couple of decades?

Venkat Raman  12:16  

Okay, that sounds fair. That sounds existential. So I think that's,

Mads  12:22  

it is. I think I've seen a couple of cartoons that show you know, the COVID has been kind of a, I think, ah, global shock. Yeah, to, to our social systems, to our democratic systems to human systems. Like, and there's a lot of discussion of, you know, COVID is kind of a, the way we respond to dealing with COVID as an existential threat is something we have to do pretty quickly. So we had one or two years, with COVID, we found a vaccine, we've been combating the effects of COVID. You know, climate change is not really that different. It's a global challenge. We need a global solution, we need people to come together for a common cause. I don't know if there's a vaccine for climate change, but we need something similar. Yeah. And that the benefit we have is that climate change, fortunately, is slowly changing. pattern. And so we do have maybe 10 years to solve what's a much bigger challenge than COVID, unfortunately. And so the hope is that we can do so and we don't wait until last second.

Venkat Raman  13:34  

So let's sort of dive in and talk a little bit about how renewable energy at least from the academic and technology side is constructed, or configured or thought of or organized. From your point of view.

Mads  13:57  [Renewable Energy Technologies]

Yeah, so renewable energy technologies. It is It's a beautifully broad area. Yeah. And so so if you're interested in physics, there are lots of opportunities where you can work on fundamental basic science, or even learn about fundamental physics, right? If you're interested in semiconductor areas, you're interested in fundamental physics, there is there are startup companies that are large companies, and there are technologies to develop based on cool stuff happening in physics today. And so I would, I would say there's a, an area in fundamental science, you know, physics, chemistry, biology as well, where there's a need, there's a need, there's know how and there's an opportunity. So that that will definitely be one area fundamental science.

Mads  15:00  

There's a separate area, so called the systems science. So where you you may deal with with signals, but those signals may not be physical signals, but could be communication signals that could be basically the way that sensors and actuators and devices communicate and interact with each other in a system. And so that's going to be necessary. As we move towards automation. As we move towards improvement or optimizing our systems, how we utilize resources, we're going to need what's called system scientists, which have a engineering background, or a mathematics background, or a data science background, who, who help us automate the systems that we are building. So you can think of those as maybe that maybe they are at the highest view of things, whereas the basic sciences are really, you know, in the deep in the weeds in the details of the individual components.

Mads  16:09  

So between the basic sciences and the system science, so the basic science basically deals with folks who develop technology necessary to build the cool new components. And systems science deals with how these components interact across networks, whether those networks are wireless, wired, physical, or abstract generalizations. And so in between you have all kinds of engineers, electrical, mechanical, Civil, Environmental, all kinds of engineers who built on the interfaces between these, this these different components? Garden, so So in that sense, I would say there are kind of three broad areas within renewable energy technology, fundamental basic science, that are the system scientists looking at automation. And then in between are the interfaces, the folks who interconnect the different devices? And that that would be my broad definition of renewable energy technology.

Venkat Raman  17:10  

So would you would you think of the interfaces as applied sciences, if you will?

Mads  17:14  

Yeah, that's right. Yep. Yeah, absolutely. And those interfaces could be, you know, in simplest terms, you know, you're connecting batteries, or solar PV to the grid itself. That could be an electrician. It could also be electrical engineers developing the controls that sit on a battery. It could be, it could be all kinds of Education's college degrees. It's like one degree you can get if you want to get into renewables. And if you miss the boat, you're done for good. There's there are many, many paths to renewable energy.

Venkat Raman  17:54  

What are the challenges? And what are some of the hot developments? I call it hot. But what are the key developments that in renewable energy over the last decade, And what are sort of the challenges from a research and development point of view in that area as well?

Mads  18:14  [Hot Developments]

So I think, you know, I will give you my perspective, and that there are many, many, I would say hot areas in this in this part. One of the really hot areas is energy storage. Yeah. And so we are pretty well aware of, you know, Tesla has made residential batteries. A commercial entity, you can go and you can buy them or rent them from a utility. But those kind of batteries are not the only thing we'll need because they can only store energy for about, they can provide energy for about four hours.

Mads  18:55  

What is a current really hot topic, current really hot topic is seasonal storage. So we all kind of know that the sun shines during the day, and then it doesn't shine at night. And you can't really do anything about that. Right? And so how do you transfer energy that's been generated during the day to the night? This is a problem we'd have more or less figured out. You can buy a couple store couple batteries lithium ion perhaps. And you could then realistically use those batteries overnight. But what do you do from season to season? The wind tends to blow on a on a seasonal basis. And you get more sunshine in the summer than you do in the winter and and Northern Hemisphere's. Yeah. And so how do you shift energy not just from day to day but really season to season? And that requires energy technology right now that is unexplored at the scale necessary to solve climate problems. And so there's some really exciting really exciting companies starting to pop up in this field, and the Department of Energy is really trying to invest in this area as well. So long term or seasonal energy storage, just one key area.

Mads  20:13  

The other key area. It's related to the notion of shifting energy in time. But it's thinking about this from a global perspective. Luckily, we have time zones. Yeah. And so even though it's night, where I'm sitting right now in Copenhagen, and you talked about your beautiful blue skies. What that means is that even though you and I are on the same, we are speaking at the same point in time, and we're just different times of day. Yeah. What would be really cool would be if I had a wire, perhaps a very, very long wire that went from my apartment, Copenhagen to your apartment, or your house in California. What would happen is that that solar panel in California right now is hopefully shining. Yeah, sorry, the sun is shining on the solar panel that you you're then providing, and you could then ship power to me. Right now. Yeah. And so so that idea of a global grid. So that's, that will be a high voltage, DC power global grid. But that notion of a global grid can really change the way we think of renewable energy, because that would mean the sun shines at any given time on the planet, somewhere, if we could, if we could connect these timezone based solar array stations, wind farms, together across the globe, we could supply the whole world at any given time. And so even though it's nighttime in Copenhagen, right now, the sun in California could provide power in Europe. And that idea of a global grid is a very hot topic. It's certainly, you know, hot within the research area, but there are also some serious political and policy challenges to make that happen. Yeah, yeah. So that will be another hot topic.

Mads  22:07  

Then there are a couple other topics. So seasonal storage is kind of you can think of it like a component is a massive battery of some sort. Global grids are a massive network, or infrastructure project, right? The system's challenges that we are facing that also are represent some of the hottest topics today are renewable energy integration. So I mentioned earlier that we will need terawatts of renewable energy to be integrated into our grids. Right. So that's in the US. That alone is going to require significant rethinking of how we manage the grid itself, which is, you know, phenomenal infrastructure. And how we manage it means, you know, what are the operations? Operationally, how should we think about the role of generation or where does the energy come from and and how we consume it. And so that brings about renewable systems integration blinks about the need for flexibility in the grid, which brings about the need for automation, connectivity of devices, having smart devices that can realize when the energy is cheap or clean or available, and can then consume energy on a smart basis. So your hot water heater, your air conditioner, your electric vehicle charger soon, all these devices have the smarts to enable them to respond and adapt their consumption patterns based on the availability of clean, renewable or cheap energy. And so that that's kind of the third challenge is the systems integration, or flexibility that we need to add to the grid off today to ensure that it can support the renewables that are coming.

Mads  24:03  

So those are the three certainly the three hot areas I would mention going back seasonal storage, a global grid, and systems integration, automation and flexibility.

Venkat Raman  24:15  


Mads  24:15  

Those would be the three challenges that I focus on. There are tons of other challenges across many different domains that I didn't mention. So just to be clear that if someone didn't hear something they're interested in, that would certainly there are so many different ways that we can push the frontier to to develop better, cleaner and greener systems.

Venkat Raman  24:47  

How do you go about, you know, engaging with this so that you can do this kind of research or build these kind of products or components. What do I need as a high schooler to study, what should I be good at?

Mads  25:03  [Skills Needed to Pursue Renewable Energy]

Yeah, that's it? That's a good question. So that kind of going back to the fact that a lot of public discourse has unfortunately, devolved into this, you know, for or against black and white absolutism. And so the, the, please, whenever anyone wants to do anything, it doesn't really matter if it's renewable energy or not, what they should be good at is communicating effectively. And so, you know, I sometimes I start my class, which is an engineering class, right? And I start with a very basic question, what is a kilowatt hour? And some people will sit there and they'll cover kilowatt hour, two joules and tell me how many joules it is. Yeah. But then I say, fundamentally, what is a kilowatt hour. And if we're talking about renewable energy, you know, in a good engineer, or a good scientist, you have to be able to communicate. And so what I tell them all the time is go home, go to your parents, or grandparents, whoever it is that you're going out with, ask them, What is the kilowatt hour? See what answers they get. And what you'll see is that almost no one really knows what a kilowatt hour is. And therein lies our fundamental problem. There is not enough awareness of what a kilowatt hour is. So the first skills anyone needs in my classes is we need to be able to communicate what is a kilowatt hour, because if people don't know, they won't care. Yeah, and so. So you know, first be good at communicating. Whatever that is, communicate renewable energy, communicate whatever position you have, and communicate that effectively.

Mads  26:44  

Focusing a little bit more on the renewable energy within engineering. There are some things you can't avoid. math and physics are fundamental, to almost everything we do, whether you're civil, mechanical, electrical, and so you can't hide from the math and the physics. Yeah. But that doesn't mean that you have to be able to be a better calculator than your you don't have to calculate things better than your calculator. We have developed technologies that help engineers focus more on creative solutions, and less than being computers. And so having a strong foundation in math and physics is necessary, but you don't have to be super fast. Be able to solve stuff in your head super fast, that's not necessary anymore. And so when kids come to my come to my class and say, I'm not good at math, then I say that's because you're trying to compare yourself against a calculator. And then you can ask a calculator, any questions you want, right? Calculator can only do what you tell it to do. We need engineers who can figure out what they need to do themselves need to ask the right questions and push the boundary and be creative. But but having a good foundation in math, and physics is still very helpful. And so I think that's the thing you can hide from math and physics, it pops up everywhere.

Mads  28:19  

You know, even as you move into your senior year of college, you know, you're going to be trying to, in my classes, trying to automate something, or trying to optimize some kind of system behavior. And those are code with coding, you need to be able to code you're gonna need to build algorithms. And those algorithms will depend on math. And your models will depend on physics. And we can't avoid those. And so what can you do if you're a freshman, focus on the math and the physics and learn how to code. That way you can tell computers what to do. And that's a very powerful, weak way to solve engineering problems.

Mads  29:02  

And this is actually something I had from a former colleague of mine. Sure. So he was an undergraduate and one of my classes, and then later on, we hired him for the startup company that I have been working with for the last five years. Yeah. And he was phenomenal. His name was Andrew Giro. He was phenomenal at tinkering and solving engineering problems with his hands, which means, you know, he could take a piece of hardware coded up and interface with something else and code it up and get it all to all working together. So he was really fantastic at kind of turning hardware and software together into engineering solutions. And so I've had many discussions with him in the past. You know, being good at math and physics is one way to do things. You can solve a lot of problems by going through math and physics. But as an engineer, in the end, you're going to have to get stuff working in front of you in some way. Some physical device or or another. And so the way you do that, especially in freshman year is you tinker, yeah, you can go online, you can buy super cheap, you know, Arduinos, you can buy super cheap programmable logic devices. And you can, you can buy sensors, you can buy all these small things for 10s of dollars. And you could sit and you could coat them up in your in your dorm room, you can cope it up in your bedroom, and you can get stuff talking to each other. And that practice is something not every class offers. But it's something that every engineer will need. It's a skill that's really powerful. And so I think the topic is Internet of Things is something that has, yeah, it's surrounding these days, quite a bit. And, and being an active participant in the engine of things can be really powerful. And so, you know, communications, math and physics, algorithms and software, and tinkering is really important.

Mads  31:07  

And I would also say that the when it comes to problem solving, there are many problems to solve. And those five, if you're good at communicating, if you're good at math and physics, if you're good software algorithms, or if you just have a knack for tinkering. You can solve many problems with any of these four skills.

Venkat Raman  31:33  

Once they come to college, to take their courses, and if they decide to take the engineering route, whichever branch of engineering, is there a, is there a way Or are there other courses that take them into renewable energy? Or is it something that happens after you get close to graduating? Or when how exactly does that sort of seep into the thinking?

Mads  32:02  [Selecting Renewable Energy in College]

That's an excellent question. So I can give you just from my own experiences. So I was an undergrad in 2003 until 2008, at the University of Cincinnati, in Ohio. Yeah, at that at that time. As far as I know, there was no course on renewable energy offered at all. Which meant when I graduate as an electrical engineer, I had never taken a power systems and energy course. Yeah. Then when I went to graduate school, at Michigan, in 2008. You know, I have never, as a graduate student taking a powered energy course. And that's because when I joined in 2008, two years to Michigan, there was no power and energy program. There's no power systems program. Because, you know, all the smart minds in the US had figured out that since we had no real problems with the grid, or the electricity infrastructure for a number of years, there was obviously no need for people to be experts in power systems or energy systems. Right. And so they're basically what electrical engineering basically went by that power energy program in many places for 25 years. Some schools maintain that program. So of course, and then what happened was the big blackout in 2003, right, New York, and other consecutive events, made universities realized that those electrical engineering programs that didn't have power and energy needed to ramp those up quickly. So there was a lot of hiring in 2005 6789 10, all the way to 2015, where educated, PhD educated electric engineer started building out these power energy programs, which at University of Vermont, we also did in 2006-7.

Mads  34:09  

And then the question became Where does renewable energy fit into the curriculum in at University of Vermont, we have made it one of our core paths for electrical engineers to get a chance to take part in energy courses in their second year. And, and this, this we this, we offer through basically two different routes. One is what we offer as a low carbon energy course where we focus on low carbon energy technologies, solar wind, hydro, but also nuclear power.

Mads  34:51  

And then we also follow up with kind of a more traditional electric energy system analysis course, where we focus on machines and drives transformers the grid itself. And we give kind of a student and understanding of, you know, what does it mean if you have a photon from the Earth from the Sun, making its way on to the to the earth impacts a solar PV panel that then displaces a electron and then started to cause basically a grid to be affected by that photon. And so we make that whole journey from from the sun, to the panel to the grid and talk about all the physics involved in that. So a little more diversity, traditional power systems course. But that's, that's available for second year students. And we filled a whole track around renewable energy now at the University of Vermont. Other schools, I think they started, they kind of treat renewable energy as an elective. So you see those in your third and fourth year as an undergrad.

Venkat Raman  36:01  

Let's say someone stops at the undergrad level with expertise in renewable, renewable energy, what are the different types of career opportunities for them?

Mads  36:15  [Career Opportunities]

So since there are many paths to renewable energy, there are also many career opportunities. Some of the, some of the students that I've worked with, have gone on to take on jobs as data scientists, for companies that build algorithms that charge or manage large fleet of electric vehicles.

Mads  36:44  

I have students who went to Vermont for an undergrad and then left for Sweden, for their master's degree. And now they're working basically on electricity markets. Basically selling bidding, energy contracts from hydro facilities.

Mads  37:04  

I have other students, students now managing technology portfolios at major utilities.

Mads  37:15  

And I have other students yet that kind of have more of a clear R&D Focus, kind of continuing the path of R&D in some sense or another around the mobile systems integration.

Mads  37:30  

Paths are so numerous, I have had fantastic conversations with lawyers who work on behalf of startup companies in the renewable energy sector.

Mads  37:44  

We have hired phenomenal data science and visualization. Engineers who started out as artists, and just found out that they could turn their artistic skills into visualization skills for data set large datasets. There are so many paths Venkat, like, I don't even know when we have to stop and start.

Mads  38:12  [Path for Non-STEM Students]

I would, I would say the one thing that kind of pains me a bit in, in the, in the discussion of renewable energies that it often falls on the shoulders of on the years of folks that it must be a STEM field, or something like the science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Right. And and I think that's a fallacy that probably will be something we've got, we're gonna pay for it in the future when all the folks who may not be in STEM essentially checks out of the renewable energy arena. And so I think there's an there's the onus, the responsibilities really on us in the STEM area, to attract folks and help them understand that if you're not in STEM, there are still paths for you, in which you can help solve some of these very challenging problems. And specifically, in that regard, we're actually trying to, I'm actually supposed to be creating a new course here next year. That is targeting, broadly, a non stem setup students to think about energy systems from a board game perspective. So we're going to take this course we're going to build a board game. And in the process of building a board game, we're going to learn about the different levers that exists and the different incentives and the different mechanisms in which renewable energy systems can be played against each other. So the tough decisions that grid operators have to make is something we can turn into a game. If you want to, to answer the question, what is the kilowatt hour? We're going to answer that question through games, so that designing a game doesn't require an engineering degree. It just requires problem solving skills, creativity, and the ability to communicate. So we're trying to leverage these fundamental assets that make you a successful problem solver, and tilting them towards renewable energy challenges. And so we're hoping that we can impact not just our STEM, you know, cousins, but also folks that are not in STEM, who have a chance to, to impact the renewable energy sphere. So that's, that's something I'm really excited about, and something that that that's popped into my head that we, we focus a lot on stem. But that's actually not the only place where people can can participate.

Venkat Raman  40:30  

I think, I think that's a great point. I mean, I think, at the end of the day, everybody has a vested interest in making this work. And they may not know it, and they will not be aware of it. But and I think educating them, somehow exciting them about it is a great idea. And so yeah, I think that's a great point.

Venkat Raman  40:58  

So Mads I thought, unless you want to add anything more I can kind of thought, we could talk a little bit about how you got into this and a little bit about yourself.

Mads  41:11  [Prof Almassalkhi’s Renewable Energy Journey]

So on my, guess, my personal journey. And so for a person who's never taken the course in power systems or energy systems as a student, how did I end up being a professor in power energy systems? That's a good question. And, and so this, this actually was because of my so I might in graduate school. In graduate school, you have to take a number of courses, to satisfies, you know, some some requirements on qualifying exam or comprehensive exams or something like this. And after you take courses, you have about three years to focus on research. And so those two years were two courses that were really no power energy programs offered at Michigan, as I mentioned earlier. And so I took courses elsewhere, I took math courses, I took control theory courses, I basically focused on all the tools necessary to do automation, I actually started my research in the area of self driving cars, and how to avoid collisions with human drivers. And so my my background, my interest in research came from automation, I wanted to automate systems so that they work better for humans. I just so happen to fall into the lap of a PhD advisor in graduate school who worked on power and energy systems. And so my interests in course, background and automation fell, you know, into, you know, what can we do with power and energy systems? And I remember meeting with him first, the first time, my advisor, yeah, and I send them an email email here to one of my friends, and I said, you know, this power energy stuff, I don't think it's for me. And that wasn't, I think, first first year of grad school or something like this, right? And now and now I sit, you know, tenured professor in power energy systems. And the reason I'm here is because power and energy systems are fantastic and rich systems. And let me explain why, why what I mean by fantastic and rich systems. So like, as I mentioned earlier, this notion of a global grid, it is no surprise that the electricity infrastructure we utilize today spans continents. Right, the electric grid in the US spans the entire continent of North America, we are dealing with phones with electrons traveling across wires almost at the speed of light. That means we deal with a machine that's the size of a continent, and moves at the speed of light. That is just a phenomenal system. It is operated not at the speed of light, obviously, because humans can't make decisions that fast. Nor can computers necessarily, but it is operated at many different timescales. And so the grid that we see today exhibits many different types of behavior, depending on which timescales you focus on. You can look at very fast timescales, you know, order of seconds and milliseconds. And you can see beautiful sinusoids, traveling the length of conductors. And you can kind of zoom out a little bit and you can look at the minutes and the hours and the days and the months and the years for planning problems. At each of those problems have a sequence of interesting challenging paths that you can take and questions you can answer. And it is a rich system in both terms of space and spatial context, the temporal context and so it's beautiful spatial temporal system that just continues to elicit interesting behaviors. And so I have Not after roughly 10 years of work focusing on this area, I have not gotten bored yet. It's a renewable energy as a system is a beautiful system. And so, so that's, that's why I'm here, even though I didn't start in power energy systems, but I am certainly wonderfully happy to be in it.

Venkat Raman  45:25  

It's amazing. It's amazing. Yeah,

Mads  45:27  

it is, it is truly is amazing. What's amazing is that it works. I mean, it's no, I can sit here, and I can turn on or off my lightbulb. Yeah, and what's really, what's really cool is that, you know, the fact that I changed the demand on the north, the light, you actually change in demand. And that change is felt at a, you know, a large regional part of the US or in this case, Europe is feeling is actually you can you can, if you had a very, very good sensor, you can actually see the effect of this very little change, it changes the frequency and the network, it forces generators to adapt. It's a beautiful system. And it's also extremely complex, and highly nonlinear. And there's, there's so many things to look at. And so many interesting questions to ask, and all we need are people who can communicate and be problem solvers.

Venkat Raman  46:26  

But how did you realize that this was for you? What was it that you know, made you feel that you will be good at it that you would be, you know, proficient at it?

Mads  46:42  

That's a good. So that's, that's a good question. How did I realize I was good at it? I don't know, I feel like I have. I have always been reasonably, I've always enjoyed solving problems. What I what I have realized is that renewable energy systems are power and energy systems that just have so many interesting problems that I enjoy working on. And so I. So maybe, maybe, maybe what I realized, so when I finished my PhD, actually, during my PhD, I started consulting for a startup company, that didn't exist quite yet. So as in this country, we call it stealth mode. So we're raising money, and I joined it as a consultant while I was a PhD student. And there, what I worked on, was a very, was a pure application, a very practical implementation of some of the algorithms that I had developed in my PhD. And what I realized was that I had learned a lot during my PhD, I taken courses, of course, but also done a lot of research. And when you do research, you basically teach yourself stuff, right. And what I realized what the old stuff had learned, wasn't just between me and my advisors, my PhD advisor, but actually something I could use in the real world. And so we had to develop these algorithms as a PhD student, they were implemented by the startup company for which I consulted. And they actually showed to save something like $150,000 in energy savings from a university in the Midwest. And when that happened, so when I realized that my algorithms, which were just me, trying to do my best, actually saved 150,000 in energy savings. For a university in the Midwest, I realized that I could actually do stuff, I could impact the world. Or at least I could have a positive impact on the world with the knowledge I had to date. And that made me really excited about having and making an impact. As I mentioned earlier, power and energy systems are rich systems, which you can always see. You can always dig, dig, dig, dig and find interesting mathematical problems. But what I learned during my PhD through this consulting gig was that I really enjoyed working on problems that had a real world impact. And so and so after my PhD, I had postdoc offers to join MIT, I pushed up to go to ETH Zurich, I had postdoc offers from a bunch of other places. And I ended up not going to any of those postdocs. I joined that startup company that I've consulted for. And people always asked me, you know, if would you do it again, if you had the chance. And I learned so much about myself doing that. And I learned about what it means to have an impact. I had fantastic discussions with MBA graduates who think differently than engineers. And so I learned enormous amounts from hanging out with non engineers. And so I think from that point on, I probably knew I was pretty good at what I did. And I really enjoyed having an impact. I think that was what that's what motivates me is, I want to have an impact. I don't just want to do science for the sake of science, because there are enough people picking up the belly buttons. Which is a Danish expression for for kind of being stuck on something.

Venkat Raman  50:22  

With this, you are at the forefront of all this. What, What keeps you excited? I mean, you mentioned 10 years later, you're still excited. Is it because you're solving big problems? Is it because you're good at it? Or is it the combination of things or the impact you're going to have?

Mads  50:46  

So I I'm excited, because I've two reasons. One, I feel like my work matters. And that's, of course, personally very satisfying, and very important to make sure that I can sit up at 1030 at night in Copenhagen. Yeah. and talk and talk to someone in California about this exact topic. Yeah. So I feel like my work matters. Yeah. And number two, it's like, like you said earlier, it's an existential, we are in an existential crisis, we have a serious challenge in our hand. And I'm fairly good at what I do. I really enjoy working with students on these problems. And in the past five years, we've had luck in making an impact. And so it is very exciting to feel like your work matters, and being able to contribute to solving the overarching problem of renewable energy integration, which is climate change, which is climate change mitigation. And so it's, it's, it's, it's exciting. It's super exciting. It's so exciting. I mean, next, in two weeks or so I'm going to give a talk at a digital tech Conference in Copenhagen. On the role of digitization, in, in energy systems. And it's in this is going to be to a crowd of these are not just pure energy people, these are digital textbooks, both in bio in biotech, and all over the place. And so it's it's exciting that, you know, I get it, I get a chance to share them the stuff we're working on, but also people are interested in this stuff. And, yeah, it's important. It's an important problem. And I feel like I contribute. I think that's the that's really the key.

Venkat Raman  52:47  

Absolutely. No question. So Mads, I'm going to start winding down so that you can get back. It's 1030 in the night, and I really appreciate you taking the time and getting into so much detail and giving a great sort of overview of the landscape of renewable energy. And I'm hoping that lots of high schoolers listen to this and get excited and join your effort. And, you know, leave the place the third time in a better place for the next generation. So thank you so much.

Mads  53:26  

Thank you, Venkat for making this possible, and, and I really enjoyed our conversation. Definitely would be more fun in person. But technology has benefits also.

Venkat Raman  53:34  

Yeah, we'll definitely meet one of these days, I'm sure but for now, take care and be safe.

Mads  53:41  

Same to you. Bye. Bye.


Venkat  53:48

Hi again!

Hope you enjoyed our podcast with Prof Mads Almassalkhi on Renewable Energy.

Prof Almassalkhi gave us a great overview of Renewable Energy, Why it is Important, the opportunities and what it takes to do undergraduate study.

I hope this podcast inspires you to learn more about Renewable Energy.

For your questions or comments on this podcast, please email podcast at almamatters.io [podcast@almamatters.io] with the Subject: Renewable Energy.

Thank you all so much for listening to our podcast today.

Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].

To stay connected with us, Subscribe to Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify or visit anchor.fm forward slash almamatters [anchor.fm/almamatters] to check us out.

Till we meet again, take care and be safe.

Thank you!

Summary Keywords

College Podcast, Primer, Renewable Energy, Seasonal Storage, Power Systems Grid, Physics, Global Grid, University of Vermont, CORE Lab, Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Fundamental Science, Applied Science, Systems Science, University of Cincinnati, University of Michigan

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