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SDSU graduate student finds success at national research lab

Prateek Munankarmi at NREL
During his internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, Prateek Munankarmi, then a South Dakota State University graduate student, models how smart home capabilities in residential homes can affect the energy distribution system. (Photo credit: NREL/ Dennis Schroeder)

“Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” That adage captures the experiences of South Dakota State University graduate student Prateek Munankarmi.

When Munankarmi interviewed for an internship at National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, he found the research he was doing at South Dakota State matched what the lab was doing—and he landed the position.

That did not happen by chance.

After working for a utility company building a hydroelectric power plant, Munankarmi sought a graduate program focused on managing energy distribution. That led him to Assistant Professor Tim Hansen of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “South Dakota State has a good power program and Dr. Hansen’s profile matched my interests,” Munankarmi said.

What the Nepal native did not know then was that Hansen was a NREL intern while completing his doctorate at Colorado State University. “The research I do is very much in line with the research done at NREL,” Hansen said.

Following Hansen’s advice, Munankarmi learned a new programming language and simulation tools. He also took an operations research course to learn the fundamentals of optimization. “Prateek is an amazing student,” Hansen said. “He learned a lot of tools that helped him solve problems that he was interested in and that coincided with what NREL wanted.”

Munankarmi completed his one-year NREL internship in April and begina a full-time position in the NREL residential buildings group in May.

Modeling smart technologies

“The excitement level here is really high—I get to learn something new every day and have the freedom to explore things,” said Munankarmi, whose internship focused on home management systems.

“I model how smart appliances and scheduling will affect the grid on the residential side as well as the utility side,” he explained. “For example, if we have 2,000 households or more with smart home capabilities, how does that impact the grid, utility companies’ profits and distribution systems?”

Power suppliers charge less for nonpeak energy because more efficient generators, including renewables, such as wind and solar, are in use, while peak power generators are the most expensive to run. “The ability to change loads will help increase penetration of renewable energy in the grid,” he said.

Changing consumer habits

Currently, customers pay a flat rate for electricity based on the amount they use each month. “That does not motivate consumers to change their behaviors,” Munankarmi said. He is examining how providing incentives to homeowners to change their consumption patterns can help balance energy demand.

Prateek Munankarmi at Rocky Mountain National Park
Munankarmi tours the Rocky Mountain National Park during his internship at NREL.

However, he noted, one of the major challenges is to assure residential customers that they can schedule appliance usage to reduce their electricity costs while maintaining their comfort level. “Human behavior is difficult to model because it’s hard to predict what people will do,” Munankarmi said.

That’s why he’s looking forward to the next phase. “We are trying not only to formulate a solution through simulation, but also to test it in the field.”

The plan is to simulate a residential community of 500 zero-energy-ready homes in Fort Collins and perform field validation in a portion of those homes. Many of those homes will have rooftop photovoltaic panels, smart appliances, battery storage and individual energy management systems. The homeowners will then be able to input their preferences.

“It’s a very exciting project with a lot of technical details,” said Munankarmi, who defended his thesis in April and graduated in May. “At NREL, I was able to build on what I had learned at SDSU,” Munankarmi said. He acknowledged the support and encouragement of his NREL mentors, Annabelle Pratt and Xin Jin, as contributing to his success.

“Prateek has good understanding of both power systems and building control,” said Jin, a control engineering researcher in NREL’s Residential Buildings Research Group. “This unique background made him capable of contributing to different parts of our projects. It has been a great experience working with him and I look forward to continue working with him upon his return.”

“Prateek was a wonderful addition to our project team as an intern,” said Pratt, a principal engineer in NREL’s Power Systems Engineering Center. “We worked on an analysis of the impact of smart appliances, electric vehicles, residential batteries, and home energy management systems on power system operations under emerging electricity tariffs. He has an excellent grasp of the operation of power systems and up-to-date knowledge on power systems modeling. This is a testament both to Dr. Hansen’s skills as an adviser to graduate students, and to Prateek’s hard work and keen interest in this area of research. We are delighted that he has decided to join NREL.”

“When Prateek got the internship, I told him ‘this your chance to prove that you are worth hiring.’ Obviously, he impressed multiple people to land a full-time job,” Hansen said. “We are not going to send every student to NREL, but we know what they are looking for—we are building a reputation for our power program.”

Munankarmi agreed: “New students coming into the master’s program will have this opportunity—that’s exciting.”