Podcast 085: Arshad Mansoor: What is the grid’s biggest R&D team planning for the future and how does local energy fit?

Host Bill Nussey catches up with Arshad Mansoor, President and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, the world’s preeminent independent, non-profit energy research and development organization. Mansoor shares the vision his global organization has for a safe, clean, resilient energy future for people and communities worldwide and the critical role local energy plays in a rapidly emerging shared energy economy. Listen and learn what is driving this transition, the underlying technologies needed, and the policies that must evolve to achieve this bold vision.

Here are some of the highlights from their discussion…

“People think mitigation options are [about] raising substations five feet up, making transmission lines more robust, making distribution lines more robust, tree trimming, and they are all necessary things that we have to do. But resiliency is not only on the infrastructure side. We have to build community resiliency. And this is where DER plays a huge role.”


“So I would say moving from reactive to a proactive focus on community resiliency, anticipating extreme weather frequency and severity, increasing and anticipating societal dependency is at the heart of climate READi.”


“What excites me most is if we do this right it will reduce the energy cost to an average household and doing this right means making sure DER and infrastructure are both important part of this journey.”

You can also listen to this podcast and others in our series on these platforms:

Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Listen on Google Podcasts

Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)

Climate READi Initiative

FeedSpot Ranks Freeing Energy #1

FeedSpot Renewable Energy Podcast

Full Transcript

Bill Nussey:

Welcome to everybody in the Freeing Energy world. We are so delighted to have you listen in again. So many interesting topics. I think the world of energy and electricity and power has never been more exciting dynamic, and we are thrilled and honored to have a small role in helping lots of folks who don’t spend every single day in the industry to learn about it and see what’s possible, what’s exciting, what’s difficult and talk to the folks that are actually out there on the front lines, making all of it work and doing that miraculous thing that every one of us takes for granted in the United States, which is, “Hey, I flip on the light switch and the light comes on nearly universally in most parts of the world.” And that is no small feat. That’s why in my book, I refer to it as the most complex and amazing machine ever built, the US grid and many of the counterpart grids around the world. As all of you know, and everyone who listens in the US power grid is going through a dramatic transformation.

Bill Nussey:

It’s a gigantic, incredibly complex industry that’s been shaped for over a century back to the days of Tesla and Edison and of course our hero Sam Insull. And it’s been built on a large centralized power plants. Everybody is familiar with this, and it’s those power plants historically were built on fossil fuels and that power was delivered over massive transmission lines and distribution systems. And it had a pretty unique business model in the world, even in today’s modern business, that allowed this steady power to be delivered in a safe, reliable, resilient way to hundreds of millions of people in the US and around the world. In most places, everyone has access and it’s affordable. So, but today the industry’s facing some unprecedented challenges, perhaps more than any time in its history. And there’s no one who’s been more elbows deep and tackling those challenges and searching for those solutions and our guest today, Arshad Mansoor, the CEO and president of the Electric Power Research Institute.

Bill Nussey:

So, Arshad has been with EPRI as it’s called for a couple of decades in shaping and guiding many of the major programs, research and development, power delivery, utilization, energy efficiency, power electronics. And in 2021, Arshad was appointed the president and CEO of EPRI. He was born and raised in Bangladesh, and he earned a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from the prestigious Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. And he went on to earn a master’s in doctorate of electrical engineering from the University of Texas in Austin. And interestingly enough, Arshad holds five patents into power electronics and distributed energy resources, which is pretty cool for all the nerds out there, like me that love this DER stuff. So I am really excited to have you here today. Arshad, welcome to the Free Energy Podcast.

Arshad Mansoor:

Thank you, Bill. It’s my pleasure.

Bill Nussey:

So you took over the CEO role at EPRI a couple of years ago. Can you share a little bit about your career that sort of led you to EPRI and then within EPRI that led you to help run it?

Arshad Mansoor:

Absolutely. Well, when I was growing up in Bangladesh, it was a developing country and the need for energy was… Every year it was growing eight, 10% and when I was doing my undergraduate education, I thought power and energy will be my area. And when I came to UT Austin for my master’s in PhD, I continued in that trend. In the ’90s power engineering was not the choice for many, but now looking back power, electricity energy really is going to shape our future. And I’m glad that I stayed true to my power and energy interest.

Bill Nussey:

So what led you to join EPRI and tell us about your time there and how your role evolved?

Arshad Mansoor:

We knew EPRI even from Bangladesh. EPRI is one of those organizations, we work in 40 countries with lower 400 energy companies and Department of Energy. And so it was always honor and pleasure to be affiliated with EPRI. And as it turns out, when I came to US for my masters, my research was funded by an EPRI project. So my linkage with EPRI started during my student days. And then I joined that pre-grad after my PhD and have been working with just some amazing people. Our 1100 engineers, scientists, economics, our team, I would say is the best in the world, but we also make sure that our best in the world in National Labs, in Universities, outside US, in US. So it is a true collaboration of our engineers and scientists with National Labs, startup companies. And then of course, energy companies, utilities that we engage with their expertise as well. And that really is what defines our research portfolio, which last year was approximately 440 million funded by Department of Energy, California Energy Commission funded by utilities worldwide.

Bill Nussey:

Wow, that’s a huge scale. Again, a lot of our listeners are energy nerds and it’s fantastic to know that kind of work is being done at that scale. I’m a huge fan of power electronics. I got my undergraduate at North Carolina State University, very proudly. Go pack, and they have some really great programs, the FREEDM Center for power electronics, a quick shot out there to them. I do not have any patents in power electronics, but a lot of our listeners are going to be fascinated to learn that you… Early in your career, this was a serious focus of yours power electronics, and particularly their role on small what we in Free Energy call the local energy world, what most people refer to as distributed to energy resources DERs.

Bill Nussey:

But that’s largely synonymous with some important differences, but we’ll call it DERs today because that’s the word that you guys use DER. And frankly, that’s the one the industry has adopted. It’s a good description. So you have actually filed patents in power electronics, which is super cool. So, tell us about some of the early work that you did both in DERs and some of the work that resulted in patents.

Arshad Mansoor:

No, it was amazing work at that time. We were working on ultra capacitor. One particular patent that I still feel that there is a need for that. We go back to the 1880s and we go back to the Edison Westinghouse AC versus DC, and yes, AC won. But if you look at what has happened in the last 10, 15, 20 years, and if you just focus on residential side, most of our appliances, air conditioning was the last frontier for AC because it was run by a motor. Well, now most of the high efficiency, HVAC system are run by a variable frequency drive. You convert the AC to DC, there’s a DC link and then you convert it back to different frequency AC. One, if you got a DC link that is DC.

Arshad Mansoor:

So what one of the patent was focusing on why can’t I have my rooftop solar, which produces DC instead of converting it back to AC, running it in my house, and then converting back to DC on a variable frequency drive to run the air conditioner. Why can’t we directly couple through a DC to DC converter the rooftop solar to the variable frequency drive and take out all those conversions inefficiencies. So we’re still not there market hasn’t flourished yet, but that was one of the patent that I was very excited about. And I still think that Edison may have been right more and more things are now going into DC.

Bill Nussey:

Man, we don’t actually have a prize program, but if we had a prize for the nerdiest, coolest, geekiest energy talk, you just won that with your two minute overview of air conditioning DC engines or DC motors. That was awesome. Thank you for sharing it. I love stuff like that. When I was researching the book, I ran into a lot of people who were passionate that the grid should be as Edison thought, DC based, or at least Microgrid should be DC based. And it’s this it’s nearly religious community on it. It’s very debatable. And if you go to a… I’m sure some of the conferences that you guys are part of or host, and you go to the bar after the events are done, there’s probably people having the DC/AC, heated discussion over beer. So it’s a fun conversation I’m… You guys can figure it out for the world. I’ll look forward to your answer, what we should do. So lets, talk about EPRI a little more as an organization.

Arshad Mansoor:

Well, what instigated EPRI’s creation was a growing national lead that energy is becoming a vital infrastructure and electricity is becoming a key part of energy. In 1967, the blackout led to a lot of hearing in Congress and Senate that are we doing enough technology innovation, R and D to make sure that this critical service that is provided by electric utilities is reliable, affordable, and clean. And that led to NARUC, which are the regulatory public utility commissioners in every state and the electric utilities coming together through Edison Electric Institute and putting together a plan for a nonprofit independent science based organization that will uniquely focus on public interest research on how to continue to make energy reliable, affordable, clean, and resilient so that was the starting point of our EPRI.

Arshad Mansoor:

And since then we have become a global R and D collaboration. I mentioned our research is funded by across the globe. And one third of our research is actually funded by the electricity sector in Europe, in South America, in South Africa, in Australia, in Asia. And that just brings a very unique perspective because every country is going through this journey of DER and clean energy and affordability and reliability. So we learn as much from the electricity sector throughout the world, as we contribute to their journey in this clean energy transition.

Bill Nussey:

I think it’s really impressive. And I wasn’t aware that EPRI had such a global perspective in so many global constituents and the electric electricity systems across countries are surprisingly similar, at least in some of their basic architectures. And you can imagine the benefits that are accruing, not just within the United States, but around the planet for the work that you’re doing. One of the things that amazes me about an organization with such a big charter is, how do you even possibly figure out what to focus on? There’s a million competing priorities. You know, what are your guideposts, your north stars that say we want to do all this, but here’s the things we’re going to focus on.

Arshad Mansoor:

Well, that’s a great question. When I assume the role of the CEO, the board of directors ask me the same question and we do hundreds of projects across all the way, however way you make, move, use electricity we are involved. If you got to talk about what is EPRI’s focus, our foundation is still there. Our foundation is to make sure the trillions of dollars we have invested to make, move and use electricity throughout the world is running efficiently, running safely, running reliably so that is given that’s the foundation. On top of that foundation are two very strategic areas that we are putting equal emphasis. One, both in the near term and in the long term, how do we do a clean energy transition, not just in the electric sector, but in the transportation sector, in buildings and industry, and what is the near term imperative?

Arshad Mansoor:

What is the longer term imperative? And then how do we do that while we are facing a weather that is going to be more extreme, it’ll be more frequent. One in a 100 year events is no longer going to be one in a 100 year events. So resilience of the grid, and this is where DER plays… DER plays a huge role on both sides of the coin decarbonization or clean energy and a resilient grid because DER can contribute to a clean energy world. DER can also contribute to a more resilient community. And that’s the transformation that we are focusing on while making sure that the existing infrastructure is operating safely, reliably, and affordably.

Bill Nussey:

Well, the timing of our discussion today is kind of cool as we were preparing for it, working with your colleagues, you guys have very recently made a really cool announcement directly along these lines. It’s called Climate READi, and that’s spelled R-E-A-D lowercase i, and this is directly addressing… It’s a very significant initiative. That’s directly addressing some of the things you talked about and I quote from your website, “As extreme weather increases in frequency and intensity, along with society’s dependence on electricity, the need for a comprehensive and consistent approach to physical climate risk assessment is an increasing imperative.” So a lot of big MBA words there, but break it down for us. What is this program? Why now? And what’s it going to do?

Arshad Mansoor:

Great question. And we are thrilled. We are excited about the launch of Climate READi, and it’s READi with an I. R-E stands for resilience. A-D stands for adaptation, and I stands for initiative. And the heart of this is a realization, two realization. Why initiative is needed. Realization one, we are moving to a decade and future decade where societal dependence on electricity will grow. 20% of the energy that we use in the US today is electricity. 80% is not. As we start electrifying transportation, buildings and as societal dependence on electricity grows, we saw that during the pandemic, as we all moved into home office, how important electricity was, how important communication was. The need for a more resilient grid is continuing to go into ratchet up because of societal dependence on electricity. If both of your cars are electric, and you’ve got an electric heat pump, you don’t want a three day outage, a four day outage so that’s one realization.

Arshad Mansoor:

Second realization, and this is where climate science, the weather science has improved considerably that if we continue to have warming of the globe, there is now a way to predict with cone of uncertainty on how extreme weather will look like in a particular region in a 2035, 2040, 2045 timeframe. So these two things anticipating that an extreme weather is going to be more frequent and more extreme, realizing societal leap for dependence and electricity will grow. We thought this was the right time to proactively look into resilience. Proactively means when an event happens, I use an example of hurricane Harvey. It was the human suffering was in Houston, associated area was huge. The utilities were working day and night to restore power. But one of the challenge was you flood the substation. The substations were flooded because it was almost like a one and a 100 year flood. Since then CenterPoint, the utility there has erased their substation.

Arshad Mansoor:

So that next time, if this event happens, we are not out of power. However, imagine how many substations in the US may be in a floodplain that as weather becomes more extreme, precipitation increases could be seeing that one in a 100 year flood, maybe in 2030, maybe in 2035. Do we wait for that? And then raise the substation after a four day outage in 2035? When societal dependence and electricity has maybe doubled, or should we now really look into granular regions, look at how extreme weather will shape the future of that region. Overlay that with the way we make, move and use electricity, see what the impact is, and come up with a series of things that could be done to start helping to build a more resilient community, a more resilient grid now and not wait for the event. So I would say moving from reactive to a proactive focus on community resiliency, anticipating extreme weather frequency and severity increasing and anticipating societal dependence on electricity is increasing is at the heart of Climate READi.

Bill Nussey:

Now that Climate READi is launched. What changes? What can the utilities or consumers expect to be different, say in a year or two or three, when this has started to roll out.

Arshad Mansoor:

First, I think the partnership that we have built outside of the utility is as important as the electric sector itself and that’s National Labs. National Labs will be a key part of Climate READi. They have the climate scientists, they have the signs to predict this weather extreme. We have an understanding of the power system and coupled with those two, that’s a powerful voice of signs. Another key stakeholder will be IEEE, C gray, NESC. These are standard making organization. If we have to change the standard, the design basis of the grid that substations in this flood zone need to be six feet up, transmission lines will need to be billed, not at 120 miles an hour wind speed, but 145 miles an hour wind speed. These are the things what standards organization do, and our work will establish the technical basis for that design basis to evolve.

Arshad Mansoor:

Our work will also come up with a I say it’s a consistent, comprehensive, and transparent approach on how we are predicting weather in a local region and a similar, consistent, comprehensive approach to look at what is the impact of the power system and what are the mitigation options. And I do want to spend just as few moments on mitigation options. People think mitigation options are raising substations five feet up, making transmission lines more robust, making distribution line more robust, tree trimming, and they are all necessary things that we’ll have to do, but resiliency is not only on the infrastructure side. We have to build community resiliency. And this is where DER plays a huge role. So let me just give one example, as wind and solar is increasing the grid, the need for flexibility is increasing. So flexibility is when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, or as the sun is going down at 6:00 PM and the load is picking up, how do I get a flexible resource?

Arshad Mansoor:

So you see this manifested as batteries. Utilities are now installing a 100 megawatt, 500 megawatts, large batteries that are the resilient resource, which is needed. However, can we not also put small batteries? And I use two examples of small batteries. Small batteries, one when you have a hurricane, which is one of the major event, the biggest source of human misery injury, death, one is carbon monoxide poisoning. When you bring your generator in your garage, close the garage door. Second, especially from an injury point of view, people, we don’t think about it. All major intersections when they lose their traffic light for hours, you have accidents in those major intersection. So why not a world where we take that 10 megawatt battery split it into 10 kilowatt thousands of batteries, eight hours. We install them in traffic lights, intersections.

Arshad Mansoor:

We offered them to customers to be at their meter, so that 99.999% of the time when power is there, that battery is a flexibility resource for the grid and that unique, rare occasion, where you have the major event in a long term outage that same battery now is a resilient resource. Whether it’s keeping the traffic lights on or whether it’s giving you a couple of outlets in your home so you can charge your phone. You may have a small refrigerator that has medicine that you need to keep running. So DER improves community resiliency. And as we take this grid to the next level of resiliency, it cannot be only focused on grid infrastructure.

Speaker 1:

The inspiring vision, Arshad is sharing with us today is practical, balanced, and grounded in a deep understanding of this amazing machine we call the grid. For us at the Freeing Energy Project, Arshad story, and the story behind the work being done at EPRI is important to share. Why, because this is a transition that not only represents one of the biggest business opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs on countless fronts, but a transition that has a profound impact on the lives and futures of people and communities around the world. Which is why we are incredibly humbled and honored to learn that the Freeing Energy Podcast has recently been ranked number one in Feedspot’s Renewable Energy Podcast category. Feedspot is one of the top sources for podcast rankings in the world.

Speaker 1:

The success is due in large part to our amazing guests. People like today’s guests, Arshad Mansoor and others, including Michael Barnard of The Future is Electric, Amory Lovins co-founder of RMI and Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Danny Kennedy of New Energy Nexus, and almost 100 other local energy heroes taking up the mantle in this increasingly important transition. We are honored that you have joined us for today’s podcast and hopefully the entire Freeing Energy journey. Everything we do is for you and all of our listeners and readers. We’ve not taken any advertising because we want to be as focused on your interest as we can possibly be. To that end, we invite any and all feedback and suggestions. You can share your thoughts with our community on this podcast webpage at the freeingenergy.com site, or reach out to us privately via our contact page. Be sure to like, and share our podcast with your friends and colleagues too. Now let’s get back to Bill and Arshad to learn even more.

Bill Nussey:

You have a really powerful perspective on how these interlocking pieces, the traditional grid, as I called her in the book, we call it the big grid and DERs and communities, how all these pieces come together. And I think a lot of the people who are in our community get frustrated that we’re not seeing DERs penetrating more quickly. And there’s a lot of policy regulation, safety economics. There’s a lot of complexity behind it, but I think is given your very unique position of understanding the grid and its entirety and its history. Help us understand what are the practical challenges. It’s the same practical perspective you’ve given us all morning today. What are the practical reasons why DERs are harder than maybe some of their advocates realize?

Arshad Mansoor:

From several, some technical, some regulatory and policy. Let me highlight some of the key ones, the DERs connected at the edge, and that’s where the distribution system is. And we all have heard distribution system wasn’t designed for two way power flow. I would suggest to your audience, I think one of the most thought provoking piece on how a distribution system moved from being agnostic to DER, to dependent on DER. And that’s a paper that we wrote summarizing our research is a key journey that many utilities have undertaken, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Just installing it dorms doesn’t make a distribution grid move from DER agnostic, because today we are DER agnostic. I mean, you may have a battery in your home, but most likely the utility will not have a visibility to that. Or even whether that’s being integrated with the distribution op system.

Arshad Mansoor:

So I think technical piece, we know how to do it. It will lead regulatory support because now you are investing in a distribution system, communication infrastructure, but you’re doing that. One of the reason you’re doing that it will enable widespread adoption of DER and they will, the distribution system will depend on DER, not just being agnostic so that’s one key area. The other key area is, and this is where we use a term called shared energy economy. So a shared energy economy.

Bill Nussey:

All right, say that again. What’s that term? I like this term say that-

Arshad Mansoor:

Shared energy economy. I don’t say it’s SAC, but it’s… Shared energy economy is we moved to the shared world when Airbnb and Uber came out. The premise was, I have a car when I don’t need it. You need it. Well, we’ll monetize that. I have a house and I have a room that I don’t need it, but you may need it and we can transact about it. So think about the water heater example. I need the water heater for hot water. You need the water heater for grid flexibility. Okay, you can have it, but it has to be monetized. And you can take examples of shared energy grid battery at the meter, your thermostat.

Arshad Mansoor:

If you have a charging in 240 volt charging infrastructure and that 240 volt charging infrastructure is integrated with the distribution energy management system, then you could actually participate in programs that will help you to recover the cost of the charging infrastructure by enabling the distribution operator, to use their charging infrastructure during critical leads. So why can’t the utilities, aggregators, markets actually pay for DER to reduce the cost of DER adoption by customers. As long as the DER is integrated with the distribution operation system, with the markets, and it’s providing a critical function to run the grid. That’s the basis of FERC 2222.

Bill Nussey:

Well, wow. Arshad, that is a incredibly inspiring perspective. I was hoping to have some kind of conversation about DERs today, but I know that in the role that you play, and EPRI plays in the world is you have the responsibility. It’s an incredibly important responsibility to guide the industry to towards something that first and foremost is affordable and reliable, but to hear the way that you and EPRI and all of your community, the National Labs, utilities are weaving in DERs local energy into that perspective. You’ve clearly thought about a lot, a paper that you have coming out, that you have out.

Bill Nussey:

These are all reasons that give me great hope that we are not as crazy as we thought here in the Freeing Energy community. So I’m grateful for all of your perspectives and your practical approach. I’ve learned a ton from listening to this. So thank you for all that on behalf of all of us. So, we’re going to wrap up on this really high note with our favorite wrap up for the Freeing Energy Podcast guests, we call the lightning ground four questions we like to ask everybody. So I’m just going to jump right in. What excites you most about clean energy and some of the transitions that are happening in that direction?

Arshad Mansoor:

What excites me most is, if we do this right, it will reduce the energy cost to an average household and doing this right means, making sure DER and infrastructure are both important part of this journey.

Bill Nussey:

Wow. Drop the mic. I should just hang up now because that’s as good as it gets, but let’s keep going. If you could wave a magic wand and change just one thing, what would that be?

Arshad Mansoor:

Just one thing. I think regulatory and policy that enables both DER and infrastructure and makes the distribution operator who is uniquely responsible for the reliability of the system partner with DER providers and provide incentive to customers to adopt DER. And this partnership between the distribution planner, operator and partnership with DER provider and the value accruing to the grid and the value accruing to the customers that is the regulatory model that we need to evolve to. It should not penalize the business model that we have for a co-op or a public power or an investor on utility. What it should do is reduce the cost of acquiring a thermostat or a water heater or a battery, or a 240 volt charger because those are now elements of the grid planning and grid operation. So it is a rethinking of the business model where regulatory policy becomes a key area if I had to pick one thing that is where innovation is needed the most.

Bill Nussey:

All right, third question. What do you think will be the single largest change in how we generate store and distribute electricity in the next five years?

Arshad Mansoor:

The single largest change in how we generate electricity would be a significant ramping up of wind and solar, more on the central side. Another significant engagement on the grid side would be, I think, going back to FERC 2222, and going back to this evolution of DER the movement from a DER agnostic grid to a DER dependent grid will significantly accelerate over the next five years.

Bill Nussey:

Woo. But anyway, I’m pumping my fist in the air now. All right. And the final question, and I’m sure that in your position, when you get asked, a lot, people are increasingly excited, galvanized about energy systems. They’ve been in the background for most of our lives, and now they’re becoming the forefront because of climate and weather and innovation. It’s just becoming a very exciting industry for those of us that have otherwise just relied on it for most of our lives, never gave it a second thought. So people come to me and I’d love to hear what they, when they come to you and they say Arshad, what can I do to participate? How can I make a difference in this transition to the future of energy?

Arshad Mansoor:

Oh, this is the beauty of a future where central and DER are not competing, but partnering because now you open the universe to households. You open the universe to a lot of people. They can participate in this clean energy transition. When you are changing your thermostat, go and look for what program you have in your service area, in your neighborhood that will help that thermostat to be a part of operations and planning of the distribution grid. You’re charging infrastructure, your HVAC. So your water heater, which is one of our best energy storage device you have in everybody’s home. So that realization that a large number of people can now directly participate in the clean energy transition, which have to be enabled by the organizations that are solely responsible to make sure that you have adequate resources delivered to the point of use in a reliable way. And that is the electric utility, whether you are a co-op or a public power or an investor on utility.

Bill Nussey:

Well, there you go. Man, this has been a fantastic conversation. I have learned a lot. I am genuinely inspired, excited, and I appreciate you taking the time out of your crazy busy schedules and travels to talk to all of us and share your perspective. So Arshad on behalf of the Free Energy community, thank you for being a part of our talk today, and for all the great work you and all of your colleagues around the world are doing.

Arshad Mansoor:

Thank you. It’s an honor and pleasure. And any one of your listeners want more information. You will find me in LinkedIn and will be happy to provide that information.

POST'S CATEGORIES

RELATED POSTS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

SUBSCRIBE

TOPICS

RECENT POSTS