Welcome Nagendra Cherukupalli, New Expert in the Digital Utility Community- [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]
- Oct 15, 2021 2:05 pm GMT
The utility industry is undoubtedly in the midst of numerous massive transitions, including the clean energy transition and the digital revolution. Both these trends for energy providers are leading to new technologies, strategies, and more. But what’s important to note is that these changes aren’t happening in a vacuum, and in fact they are moving in lockstep. Digital technology enables greater clean energy penetration, and the incentives towards clean power are creating new digital opportunities as well.
At Energy Central, we pride ourselves in bringing you the leaders at the forefront of these revolutionary technologies, and especially where those trends intersect is a key place we all want to watch. That’s why we’re so thrilled to add to our official Network of Experts, specifically in our Digital Utility Group, Nagendra Cherukupalli, the CTO of FTC Solar. Nagendra is working every day to solve the problems that arise using smart technologies, clean power solutions, and the modernization of every aspect of the grid.
As we welcome Nagendra as a member of the Energy Central Network of Experts, we thought it appropriate to give him a chance to introduce himself to the community via our Energy Central Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series.’
If you have any thoughts or questions for Nagendra, be sure to let him know in the comments below!
Matt Chester: This interview is one of the most direct ways we have to introduce you to the Energy Central Community so they know to keep you in mind as they have questions on your topics of expertise or to know why they should pay attention to your posts. So, can you give a quick background on what your background is in the utility industry and what your areas of expertise are today?
Nagendra Cherukupalli: My training was in computer science. My PhD was in artificial intelligence, which has now become a big deal. But at the time, it was a very new piece of technology with new frontiers being defined. I spent almost 15 years in software and then I spent about 10 years in semiconductors designing chips. And while I was at Cypress Semiconductor, I got exposed to SunPower, a leading solar company. SunPower employees were in the same building as me in an adjacent corridor. I was watching them develop various solar technologies. At Cypress Semiconductor, we used to design these integrated chips that were very small in die size but had packed billions of transistors on them. Here, the solar technology guys sitting next to me were using six-inch wafers to do one half of a transistor! That's what a photodiode is.
So, I thought to myself how difficult would that technology be? I had a tinge of arrogance at the time, and I said, "Okay, let me go try my hand at that." But it's humbled me a lot since, as the kinds of problems that we solve in solar are very different from the ones that we solve in semiconductors. In solar, it's all about costs. It's all about scale. It's all about efficiency. It's all about how to make it consumable. The challenges are very different, and it's been an enjoyable ride for me.
I started in solar around 2008. Since then, I've been just learning about solar and continuing to contribute. The software and semiconductor background I have come in handy while working on solar technologies. These disciplines are needed in power system plant design, deployment, and monitoring. And that led me to come up with creative solutions to various problems in solar.
MC: You’ve spent a lot of time leading different teams and companies in the smart energy space. With that experience informing you, what stood out about the potential of FTC Solar and what it could offer that made you want to join?
NC: I had worked with many of my current colleagues at FTC Solar while I was at SunEdison. When I left SunEdison in 2015, I did a tour of duty through several startups and in the process learned some new technologies like IoT, NLP (natural language processing), and developing user experiences. In 2017 as I was looking for a career change, this opportunity popped up. I ended up joining FTC Solar as I had the technology background, people familiarity and the opportunity to define something new from scratch.
That was how I ended up at FTC Solar. At FTC Solar we defined a brand new 2P (two modules in portrait) tracker system, which we refer to as the Voyager system, that is structurally simple to install and easy to operate; works off of a sophisticated wireless communication and control platform; monitored and managed by a software suite that learns as it goes!
MC: The experience you bring has been valuable for energy systems in both rural and urban environments. What are the differences in how IoT can be leveraged to make improved energy systems in these different environments?
NC: Fantastic question.
First, everybody needs energy. Energy is the one that breaks the poverty cycle. It also allows people to advance in their career aspirations, in their livelihoods and become more independent, and more gainfully employed. That's something that I realized early on. How do we make this energy available ubiquitously across the entire globe?
The good thing is sun is unbiased and shines around the planet with no prejudices. In rural areas, the solar solutions are more like community-solar systems; a common installation that serves the needs of, say a village; in the urban centers, it’s about deploying solar either as a C&I (commercial-and-industrial) system or as residential rooftop. In both rural and urban contexts, IoT has a role to play in monitoring. The communications platform from IoT is, or can be, repurposed to connect with multiple sensors on the system (energy production measuring sensors, soiling sensors, temperature sensors, irradiance sensors, etc.) to monitor how the systems are performing. This allows these systems to be function with low down times leading to more energy for the consumers.
There is really no difference in how IoT can be deployed in these two distinct contexts. Also, in both cases, it is more efficient to have course corrections made remotely – which would mean the deployments have to be ‘autonomous’ and self-reliant. This is a big opportunity for AI/ML (artificial intelligence/machine learning) to play a big role.
MC: The renewable energy and smart energy sectors are both very in demand and hot at the moment. Are there any developments you see coming along in these areas that are flying under the radar that have you particularly excited? What aren’t people talking enough about?
NC: Green hydrogen. That's going to be the next wave. And the reason is quite simple. Hydrogen has a very high energy density, almost 3X of gasoline. It provides a pathway for low-carbon transport solution by repurposing the existing infrastructure, without the need to mine rare-earth minerals.
And why is it going to be a big deal? Hydrogen is plenty in the world. There's no need to dig and you're not damaging the climate. And the byproduct of hydrogen fuel cell is water, which is good. But how do you produce hydrogen? You go through an electrolysis process basically. Take water, apply electricity, and break it up into oxygen and hydrogen. You don't want the oxygen. You release it and you just capture the hydrogen. That's how hydrogen can be produced.
Where I am interested in this space is how do you produce hydrogen in an energy efficient way. Electrolysis requires electrical energy. Can we design solar systems to drive the electrolysis process efficiently? This is a question that is screaming for solutions!
Why aren’t people talking about it? They are, but not as much as they should be. This, I am assuming, is because renewables industry itself is relatively new compared to fossil-fuel industry, and green-hydrogen is even more nascent. With more time, I believe, it will gain a lot of importance driven by a lot of innovation
MC: As a thought leader in this space, what value are you hoping to continue to drive in the industry?
NC: Driving LCOE (levelized-cost-of-energy) lower. How do we do it? There are only three parameters you have, to play with.
One is Capex. How do you reduce Capex?
Two is Opex. How do you reduce the operational requirements of maintaining the system? And
Three, how do you continue to improve the yield from the site?
In a simplified form, LCOE = (Capex + Opex)/Yield
So, on the Capex side, there's a lot happening with companies like us on the tracker technology. We are continuously trying to drive the steel and installation times down for these trackers. That helps with the Capex reduction.
On the Opex side, how do you make the systems perform for 25 years with little to no maintenance? Think about Tesla as an example. I was a complete skeptic about electric cars three years back because I had this range anxiety. And then once I learned about the batteries, I said, "Okay, let me take a chance" and bought a Model 3. And then I loved the car so much that I ended up buying a Model X! But here's my point. My cars are a lot smarter today than the day that I bought them. The reason is the car hardware gets software updates regularly and makes it smarter by the day to the point where the cars can (almost) drive by themselves. That is the same technology we need to bring to the tracker space. Trackers need to be able to perform on their own, autonomously, and drive uptimes higher with low manual intervention.
We are also coming up with some smart ways of enhancing yield from the projects. Let's say you really need a hundred megawatts to be installed to hit a certain yield target. At FTC Solar, we have developed technologies that will help us say, "Hey, you don't really need 100 megawatts, you can probably get away with 98 megawatts because we have this yield enhancing solution.” All that it's doing is it's looking at the terrain. It's looking at the ambient conditions. It is looking at the context in which it resides and then tuning the performance so that you get a little extra yield out of it.
If you put all this together, the utility industries will benefit from a lower LCOE. That is the value I hope to be part of.
MC: Do you have any final words of advice you’d like to share?
NC: Developers need to be a lot more open to share their data from a site. This will allow the industry to build smart, analytical algorithms that can ’learn’ from the data and create opportunities to have the sites perform better. We'll be able to create new technologies and they'll be able to benefit from additional benefits for the same investment they put in. Everybody wins.
Thanks to Nagendra Cherukupalli for joining me for this interview and for providing a wealth of insights and expertise to the Energy Central Community. You can trust that Nagendra will be available for you to reach out and connect, ask questions, and more as an Energy Central member, so be sure to make him feel welcome when you see him across the platform.
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