Full Q&A with Konstantina Valogianni

Full Q&A with Konstantina Valogianni

Dr. Konstantina Valogianni is Assistant Professor in Information Systems at IE Business School. She holds a PhD in Information Systems from RSM (2016). During her PhD research she specialised in designing machine learning algorithms applied in the energy domain, and specifically electric vehicle charging.  Konstantina is intrigued by concrete real-world problems which require an algorithmic solution to produce tangible results.

Of note:  As part of the research team of the ECFEB during her PhD, Konstantina was active in the EU funded FP7 project “Cassandra,” which focused on modelling electricity customers’ behaviour.  She is featured in this RSM Discovery story, ‘Smart charging of electrical vehicles can bring down electricity price’.

Q:  Konstantina, the website from the ECFEB says in part:  ‘We find, identify, analyse and build game-changing strategies in the energy sector.’ How has that game-changing been carried forward through your research into electric autos and charging them efficiently/effectively?

So as you probably know electric vehicles have started becoming more and more popular in the past 4 to 5 years, and this is a totally new technology, a totally different means of transport that uses electricity. First there is the question on the customer side: how to charge the car? How frequently? When should I charge it? In contrast to conventional cars, in order to be able to drive anywhere in Europe, you need to have enough electricity in your car. So the first challenge to the customer is how to charge efficiently, so you have enough electricity in the battery to get where you are going but on the other hand you don’t overpay. There is a tendency on the customer side to always charge, all the time [just as they might do with their electric toothbrush or their mobile phone] and that might lead to paying more, or not benefiting  from price variations that might exist in the electricity market (for example the “night price” for electricity is lower in some countries)

That was first challenge, that ‘always charging’ behaviour, and people that charge frequently create a problem on the grid side, because more electricity is added on the grid which was previously covered by oil or gasoline and grid operators are not prepared for this extra demand.

All the demand for fuel that was once covered by oil, now is transferred to the electrical grid, which is already overloaded with demand during the peak hours without cars being added to the grid. So by adding electric vehicles, which people want to charge all the time, increases the danger that the grid might not be able to cater to this demand if everyone in the neighbourhood is charging their car. So there is a challenge for grid operators to find ways to incentivise customers so that they will charge in a way that will satisfy their energy needs, but won’t overtax the grid.

This is what I did during my PhD, working with Eric van Heck and Wolf Ketter, finding smart ways using algorithms to provide pricing incentives for people so they charge only when they actually need it. So we had to use data analyticsto identify driving patterns; these are all scenario analyses we did as part of my PhD.

So this is how we did research into energy and specifically into electric vehicles and behaviour. People go home at night and charge their cards and the grid operations didn’t have any special tariffs during the day. By examining customer preferences and supply and demand we designed innovative pricing schemes that gave customers incentives that could allow grid operators to supply in a consistent way.

And the perfect way to test this was through our Power Tac simulator, in which you can already simulate this scenario on a large scale.

Q: Your bio on the IE site states that your research has been conducted in close proximity to industry, and that you seek to apply algorithmic solutions to solving very practical and concrete issues. Can you elaborate, perhaps a concrete example of how your research has touched industry?

Actually RSM has been very good and very helpful in that regard. First of all in the ECFEB there is an Advisory Board which exists of prestigious members of the energy industry. In the early phases of my research, I was invited quite often to present in front of the Board, and they were willing to comment – to say, OK this can be applied and really have an impact in business, or this needs to be tweaked to be applicable at a large scale. They helped keep my research grounded, and I really have appreciated this – to have the chance to inform, and learn from, all these brilliant people. This was the first step that was very helpful for me in terms of working with industry.

Secondly during my PhD I was working on a large European FP7 research project, Cassandra, in which there were university partners like RSM and in addition to universities, there were industry partners like energy consultancies and also more policy-oriented stakeholders. So we were working and thinking as part of a consortium, every three to four months we met, discussed, put research on the right track – not just academically sound, but also practically sound and in compliance with regulations. This was a great experience for me as an academic, and also going to the European Union every year and getting feedback on the project itself – these were very very smart people who were willing to offer guidance.

And finally being in Rotterdam helps a lot because RSM has a strong network of partners, and in Rotterdam sustainability is promoted heavily, so we had the chance to talk to industry there. Through RSM’s Rotterdam connections we also had unprecedented access to data about the charging infrastructure of the whole country, to be sure that the infrastructure for electric mobility is accessible for all customers.

Also right after my graduation, RSM took up  this big project - a collaboration with the Port of Rotterdam and RSM which is moving forward, examining the cooperative aspects of a city using Rotterdam as a platform.  There is a strong relationship between RSM and industry in Rotterdam, and in our research group we had people from industry visit frequently, so I was in contact with many companies during my time at RSM. Being in Rotterdam was very helpful because it means being at the heart of industry in Holland, close to the Port and all these major industries. And of course with having great leaders like Wolf and Eric that work closely with business you quickly understand that you need to show concrete results and impact or industry doesn’t want to spend its valuable time listening to you.

Q: What is your vision of the future of energy, particularly the way your area of research impacts it?

My vision is ambitious. I envision a society that is 100% sustainable in which we have the means and infrastructure to integrate renewables completely, and we don’t use fossil fuels. So in my vision by using these advanced methods – machine learning algorithms, data analytics, and digitalization – this will allow us to integrate renewable sources in our energy market in such a way that we don’t have to rely on heavy pollutants. And to achieve that very significant goal – it’s very ambitious, but I believe that our technology has been evolving, and our infrastructure,if the technology is integrated, can allow us to realise this 100% renewable goal.

Here’s an example: If we have accurate weather forecasts, we know when wind will be blowing in the north (of Europe), so we know there is a good supply of energy from the wind turbines, and we are prepared to either store or use this supply. We can use it later, instead of using a coal-fueled power plant or the constant supply of energy produced by nuclear plants. We are really trying to stay away from nuclear: Germany and other countries are striving for zero-nuclear power. In any case being able to integrate all these methods like biomass, solar panels, etc. in a smart way which gives us a cleaner, more sustainable and potentially cheaper economy is the idea. Why not make the best of our technology and make the best choices for society?

Q: Do you transmit this idea to your Bachelor and Master students? What kind of projects/courses do you teach at IE?

That’s a great question. I actually just had this discussion yesterday, with some of my Bachelor students – as I mentioned, in order to be able to achieve this shift in the energy domain we need advanced methods, data analysis, algorithms, we need to be able to understand our customers and so we have to analyse the data. So the first way is the development of algorithms that allow us to know what our customer wants and needs in terms of electricity, so we can provide it to them without disadvantage to the environment or the grid.

Therefore the first thing to invest in is technology. And the first step is educating the new generation – I am teaching programming in the undergraduate programmes and these are the tools they need; but also I am educating them in how to use these tools and technologies, these difficult algorithms in order to facilitate smart scheduling, so energy coming from sustainable renewable source like a wind turbine has immediate [connections or conjunctions] on the grid so we don’t lose any electricity. And of course I teach technology and innovation management, which is about the strategic use of this technology, how business can create business models which are really sustainable, which take into account sustainability both in terms of the environment – e.g. not polluting, and using materials in a sustainable way.

These issues need to be examined through cases with companies. All our students approach things strategically and incorporate sustainability for its business benefits, but also for gross societal benefit.

This is what we as academics should do, to encourage this approach. It’s what we have always done at RSM, and of course we are doing the same here at IE.

Q: Getting back to the idea of RSM as a force for positive change, in this case for the (very broad) future of energy/business: Do you see the work you did at RSM being validated through industry, education and further research? 

Yes in general energy research has been gaining increasing importance. There has been an  emerging field in the Information Systems area which is called Green IS/Energy Informatics and this has been growing around the world. Wolf and Eric are big leaders in this effort, making academics aware of the importance of energy research, because it has a lot of implications for business and policy. On an academic level I am seeing this validated more and more, I see more and more researchers working in this area and extending what RSM has done. Educationally – yes, of course there is a demand for this knowledge. At RSM there is an electricity/energy analytics course in place, there is in general a demand for applying analytics in the energy domain. It’s a very important topic and we need to combine technical knowledge with knowledge from the energy sector. One important initiative is that RSM holds the Erasmus Energy Forum each year.  Besides presenting our research there, and the access to practitioners and their insights, we have the Erasmus Energy Science Awards. Leading Academics and practitioners choose the best paper which  has a lot of impact in the field; I was recognised with the award in 2014.  This is the recognition given out for academic work, and there is also the Erasmus Energy Business Award for companies who are proposing innovation in the energy field. So all this together is helping future energy moving forward, attracting the interest of industry and helping research to have a significant impact on society.