Navigating the World of Energy Businesses: An Interview with Prof. Miadreza Shafiekhah

Written by Julio Serrano

The energy landscape is evolving, driven by innovation, policy shifts, and the inexorable march towards sustainability. Standing at the forefront of this change is Miadreza Shafiekhah, Professor at the School of Technology and Innovations, University of Vaasa. With a rich tapestry of experience that spans from Portugal to China, and from academic projects to real-world applications, Prof. Shafiekhah offers a unique perspective on the world of energy.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Prof. Shafiekhah to discuss his views on the energy sector, drawing from his diverse experiences. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Tackling the Uncertainties of Renewables

The topic of renewable energy and its unpredictable nature has been a significant point of discussion in recent years. Central to our comprehensive dialogue was the inherent variability associated with renewable energy sources. Professor Shafiekhah’s esteemed involvement in the UNiTED project, based in Portugal, provided profound insights into this prevailing challenge. The primary objective of this project was to delve deep into understanding and effectively managing the demand-side potential. A particular focus was placed on discerning the optimal demand response at the individual household level.

In Prof. Shafiekhah words, ”One of the primary reasons that we are going to utilize demand response is to confront and address the uncertainties associated with renewable energy resources.” This pronounced emphasis on the concept of demand response underscores the imperative need for agile and adaptable energy systems. These systems should be capable of adjusting in real-time to the inherently variable nature of renewable energy sources, notably solar and wind energy.

Furthermore, his extensive research endeavours in China seamlessly align with this overarching theme. By rigorously investigating the fluctuations associated with photovoltaic (PV) power and placing a strong emphasis on advanced forecasting tools, his work is striving to introduce a level of predictability to these renewable energy sources. The objective is to guarantee that renewable energy is not merely sustainable in the long run but also consistently reliable.

Redefining Energy Markets

A significant portion of our discussion revolved around the potential transformation of energy markets, especially with the emergence of innovative technologies like blockchain. These technologies are paving the way for the concept of peer-to-peer energy markets, signalling a departure from the conventional centralized energy systems.

Prof. Shafiekhah highlighted, ”Using this peer-to-peer market is just one of many new types of marketplaces… it is easy for the neighbours, if they know each other, just to communicate and share.” This decentralization provides consumers with the chance to be more proactive in energy markets, from selling surplus energy back to the grid to selecting their preferred energy sources.

The Hurdles Ahead: “The main barrier of renewable energy integration is policy…”

The potential of renewable energy and decentralized markets is undeniably vast. However, the road to realizing this potential is fraught with challenges. Prof. Shafiekhah pinpointed policy as a significant impediment to the integration of renewable energy, especially in the European and Nordic grids. The complexities of policymaking, often obscured from the public’s perception, are instrumental in shaping the trajectory and nature of renewable energy adoption.

Furthermore, Prof. Shafiekhah also highlighted the uncertainties associated with renewable energy sources, emphasizing the need for adaptable energy solutions. The unpredictability of weather, especially in long-term forecasts, adds another layer of complexity to the integration process. While energy storage solutions, such as batteries, are frequently presented as the “solution”, they introduce their own set of challenges. These range from technological constraints to geopolitical concerns related to the sourcing of raw materials.

Electric Vehicles (EVs): Charging Towards a Flexible Energy Future

EVs have taken center stage in recent discussions on sustainable transportation and also were a focal point in our conversation with Prof. Shafiekhah. Beyond merely serving as alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles, EVs present an opportunity to reshape the very fabric of our energy systems. Prof. Shafiekhah offered his thoughts on the management of plug-in electric vehicles and their charging infrastructure and conveyed profound insights into the transformative role of EVs in the energy landscape.

One cannot discuss EVs without addressing the elephant in the room: the surge in energy demand. As Prof. Shafiekhah aptly pointed out, ”EVs can consume more electricity, the same as one building, one apartment, one house.” This analogy paints a vivid picture of the scale of energy consumption we’re looking at as EV adoption becomes more widespread. Envision a future where every household has multiple EVs – the current grid would be hard-pressed to support such demand. Moreover, as Prof. Shafiekhah foresees, ”in the future, we will see that almost 100% of the cars will be EV or hybrid at least.” This shift would effectively double residential energy consumption in many countries, necessitating enhancements to both transmission and distribution systems.

Given the impending rise in energy demand due to EVs, innovative solutions are imperative. Here, the concept of smart charging comes into play. Prof. Shafiekhah emphasizes the integration of dynamic demand response programs with EVs, turning them into components of a larger smart charging system. Such an approach would not only mitigate the increased power needs but also reduce the pressure on the energy grid. Another intriguing prospect of EVs lies in their potential to act as mobile energy storage units. Instead of investing in stationary batteries to manage the fluctuations of renewable energy sources, EVs present an existing solution. ”We can think that we already have these EVs features and can consider this energy storage concept for providing flexibility,” Prof. Shafiekhah mentioned. However, this vision isn’t without its challenges. The unpredictable nature of EV usage patterns, combined with the uncertainties of using them as energy storage (especially regarding their immediate range after powering households), presents hurdles that need addressing.

Fossil Fuels in the Equation

The role of fossil fuels in the renewable era has been a topic of considerable debate and discussion. A significant part of our conversation centered around whether fossil fuels can serve as a stabilizing force against the inherent fluctuations of renewable energy sources. Prof. Shafiekhah recognized the potential of fossil fuels in offering flexibility in the energy mix. However, he also highlighted the economic challenges associated with continued reliance on them, suggesting that it might not be the most economically sustainable approach in the foreseeable future.

Blockchain and Cybersecurity: Essential Tools in the Energy Manager’s Arsenal

When asked about the evolving challenges and requisite skills for energy managers, Prof. Miadreza Shafiekhah highlighted, ”Right now, many companies are thinking a lot about Blockchain. It will play an important role in the future of electricity markets.” Emphasizing the breadth of its influence, he noted that ”with the new developments in the blockchain many industries are covered.” It’s evident that for those in energy management, understanding and mastering at least the basic blockchain applications is no longer optional but essential.

Yet, the technological advancements don’t come without their set of challenges. Pointing to the vulnerabilities in smart grids, Prof. Shafiekhah warned of the risk of grid hacking. He stressed that ”Cybersecurity, especially in energy markets, is of utmost importance and is even a concern for national security among governments.” Highlighting the protective potential of blockchain, he elaborated, ”By having access to information, for example by knowing consumption parameters in real time, it is very easy to know if a kid at home is alone. That’s why having decentralized markets is important to boost cybersecurity.”

Concluding Thoughts

Our enlightening conversation with Prof. Shafiekhah underscored the energy sector’s complexities and the road ahead. As challenges loom, so do opportunities. And with visionaries like Prof. Shafiekhah leading the charge, the future looks promising.

At UvaasaExEd, we feel privileged to have him as the scientific director of the new Energy Business eMBA. Vaasa, with its unique position as the energy hub of the Nordics, offers students the best environment for mastering the complexities of energy business by the hands of research experts such as Prof. Miadreza Shafiekhah. As the energy landscape undergoes a seismic shift, we invite you to be part of this journey, embracing the challenges, seizing the opportunities, and shaping the future.

Julio Serrano, UvaasaExEd Blog editor-in-chief