UCL Energy Institute


Blog: Reflections from a UCL Energy Institute Research Exchange PhD Student

25 September 2023

A blog by Prakhar Mehta, a UCL Energy Institute PhD student on research exchange from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität, School of Business, Economics and Society.

Prakhar Mehta stands in front of UCL's Portico

I recently spent 3 fruitful months at the UCL Energy Institute (EI) as a PhD student on research exchange, working with Dr. Michael Fell. My stay has been productive and delightful, and in this post, I briefly reflect on my research project, on the institute, tips to have a great exchange stay, and key learnings I take back to Germany for my last few months as a PhD candidate.

Change is good 

New surroundings and the prospect of diving into a new academic environment filled me with renewed vigour and curiosity in my first week. The office spaces naturally foster a healthy environment to discuss and connect with other researchers, crucial to synthesise synergies. This not only enhanced my productivity but also influenced my overall research experience, allowing ideas to flow more freely and creativity to thrive.

Will electric vehicle owners help protect the grid?

I was able to channel this creativity into my research project. We wanted to model the decision-making of electric vehicle (EV) owners to give up control of their cars for use as a resource in the secure operation of the electricity distribution network (i.e., for demand response). Following iterative discussions with Michael and investigating the mechanisms that may be involved in such a decision, I came across an interesting agent-based model (a bottom-up modelling technique), by Elsenbroich and Payette (2020) that modelled public goods games. In such games, there is a common public good that entities may depend on and contribute to, with the benefits shared across the entire group. For example, a group project for students, that all students work on (contribution) to achieve a good grade (the public good). As one may imagine, and may even have experienced, the problem of free riding can occur when one of the students may not contribute equally to the project.

Modelling electricity infrastructure as a public goods game

We can apply a similar analogy to the impact of the electrification of transport on electricity infrastructure. EVs need to be charged, but charging may induce overloading of the local transformer, thereby creating the need for controlled charging. Typically, controlled charging may involve slow or delayed charging, both of which may be unacceptable to EV owners all the time (they may have a party to go to in the evening!). If increasing electrification imposes increasing loads on the local transformer (the public good), some cooperation between customers behind the transformer may be necessary to avoid blackouts, while avoiding additional costs and efforts for upgrading the transformer. Even though smart controls may aid such decisions, the bottom line is that if there are free-riding EV owners who want to charge irrespective of high costs through, for example, real-time tariffs based on transformer loading – they value the freedom the car brings over thinking about the health of the infrastructure and may overload the transformer and potentially lead to loss of load for all customers connected to it. The model aims to explore this situation: how EV owners' decisions to override charging control evolve over time, considering other owners’ decisions and knowledge of the physical constraints of the local infrastructure. The atmosphere at BSEER was crucial in shaping the project, since I had access to researchers with multiple perspectives on the topic.

BSEER is unique 

Although professors and senior researchers have affiliations and distinct roles, there is also a lot of freedom in doing collaborative research projects. Most researchers have multiple collaborations and cross-institute ties; PhD students have supervisors from multiple institutes within BSEER. The higher than usual ratio of senior researchers to PhD students makes it a well-oiled machine to win major government and industry grants, and attract more researchers. Consequently, there is a wide range of energy research at BSEER, making it a very unique setting. ISR and EI together consider aspects of the energy system from individual building scale to neighbourhoods and districts to the country scale. In addition to common techno-economic energy modelling, the speciality at EI is the inclusion of the social aspects. This is gravely needed in the energy modelling community, as the discipline is driven by engineers and economists who typically base models on utilitarianism (think utility functions maximising profits or minimising costs; thanks to another visiting researcher, Jorge Moncada Escudero, for this analogy). The energy transition must also be just and equitable, without leaving anyone behind. This thought process is deeply embedded at BSEER, impacting my own thought process immensely.

Tips for your exchange 

I feel I learned how to maximise the experience of a limited time at another university and I have three recommendations others can consider for their exchange:

  1. Take a week to get accustomed to the structure of the institute, so that you may identify and engage with key research themes of interest and establish early connections with the most relevant researchers.
  2. Keep an eye out for seminars and symposiums – talks by senior researchers at the institute usually encompass the institute’s research ethos and perspective – and that slightly tangential thinking about similar research topics helps build crucial literature and thematic connections for your own research.
  3. Immerse yourself in the cultures, and say ‘yes’ to events, both research and non-research, for a fulfilling experience.

A successful stay 

My personal objectives of working with agent-based modelling and connecting with researchers in the energy domain in the UK were successful. I was fortunate to be invited to academic events and drinks with other researchers during my time at UCL, which allowed me to network and collect a lot of useful feedback for all of my research projects. Many thanks to Michael for all the help and supervision, and thanks to professors, senior researchers and fellow PhD students for making my stay informative, memorable, and for my inclusion in the positive spiral that is BSEER. I take back many ideas to implement, in my own research group (a paper club), for my own thesis writing (critical feedback on energy modelling), and for my own peace of mind, an evening tea break with biscuits.