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PhD Thesis Submitted!: An Extraordinary Adventure

4 years, and several lifetimes later, I'm submitting my PhD Thesis

[April 2016 Update: My PhD Thesis is now finalised! Download it here: Part 1  |  Part 2 ]
 


In October 2010, I got an email, advertising for a PhD scholarship in Solar Radiation & Energy with an organisation called CSIRO, at a place called The Australian National University, in a city called Canberra.  To be honest - I'd never heard of any of these things before.  But, having just made big progress on my M.S. thesis, focusing on solar energy, and not seeing any options in the U.S. in my field - I decided to a take a big chance, and apply for the position.

Several months, countless drafts of applications, and multiple scholarship awards later, I found myself with all my belongings narrowed down to 8 suitcases, and my (now fiancé), Teddi at my side, boarding a Qantas flight for Sydney.  It was June 2011, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The Intellectual Property Bomb Goes Ka-Boom!

The Intellectual Property Bomb Goes Ka-Boom!

 

I dropped like a bomb into an Intellectual Property (IP) argument, where CSIRO wanted me to sign over all my rights, IP & future profits, with no research license, and The ANU was telling me and them, that was a rotten deal.  So by September, after plenty debate and conversations with lawyers, I found myself saying 'see ya' to CSIRO - and all those hard earned scholarship dollars, plunging myself into a black hole, devoid of financing, supervisors and a PhD project to undertake. But looking back, man, that was a very good decision

"I dropped like a bomb into an Intellectual Property (IP) argument..."

But, at the time, I sure did I feel like I was in big, BIG trouble. I had no scholarship money, $30k of tuition per year to pay, and I was thousands of miles from friends and family - not to mention I'd just dropped $4k to get my dog here!

But The ANU looked out for me.  I was awarded an APA and IPRS scholarship in October 2011, and I was back on my feet.  My supervisor, Frank Mills, was able to help me patch my first semester of fees together, and get me a living allowance to hold me over (thanks Steve Dovers!).  From these new scholarships, I was set for the next 3-4 years, to figure this PhD thing out.

So yeah, about this PhD thing - now I have no project, no data, no supervisory panel and no clue what the hell I'm doing in Australia.
Solar PV arrays as our sensor network? Our innovative idea.

Solar PV arrays as our sensor network? Our innovative idea.

But shortly after these scholarships appeared, so did new opportunities.  I met two inspiring senior scientists - who recognised my potential and respected my ideas from the very beginning: Professor Andrew Blakers (ANU) and Professor Bob Williamson (NICTA).  Together, we pioneered a new project, successfully obtaining funding from the Australian Solar Institute (now ARENA), for a two year project developing machine learning based distributed solar forecasting.  So from the ground up, I built my PhD project research team, its data, and all the analysis tools I needed. It was a heck of a lot of work and it challenged me in many ways, but it quickly became clear that the falling out with CSIRO, allowed something even better to evolve.  I was also empowered by people like Andrew, Bob and Frank - who gave me their respect and believed in my ideas, as we moved our new project forward. Upon reflection, I think that those two things are the best a young scientist could ask for.

So things were looking up! But I just couldn't help myself....

So, as if being a PI on a $850k grant project and doing my PhD wasn't enough, I decided to apply for a job opening for a lecturer at The ANU Fenner School of Environment & Society (my host institution).  It was early 2013, and I was bold & naive, with no idea what I was getting myself into.  I went up against people with CVs many pages long, boasting of 10 years more experience in the field.  But I fought hard, sold myself well, and played the youthful energetic kid with big ideas and a promising future angle.  And, well, somehow, I pulled it off, landed the job, and found myself lecturing & convening for two courses with 70-100 students each.  

"And, well, somehow, I pulled it off, landed the job, and found myself lecturing & convening for two courses with 70-100 students each." 
Accepting a Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning by an Early Career Academic in December 2014.

Accepting a Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning by an Early Career Academic in December 2014.

Surely I was mad.  A full-time teaching position & a big time grant project - when's the PhD going to be the focal point? Could I really pull this off? I was courageous enough to think that I could, and I strategised my way forward, quite successfully. Things were actually shaping up nicely!

But just as I was starting to piece it all together, and get my first PhD related publications sorted, and the first round of experiments for our project underway, life threw me the biggest freaking curveball it could think of.  In a tragic turn of events, along with the birth of our son, came a scary and rare cancer diagnosis for my beautiful wife.  

We were gutted. Overwhelmed. And the PhD quickly became the least of my worries.

Over the next 6 months, while teaching, PhDing and grant-doing - I had to fight, scream and campaign to get her to the top of the waitlist for a peritonectomy surgery.   From there, in March 2014, she underwent the 12 hour operation, and then spent 5 weeks in the hospital, recovering from the brutal battering her body had taken.  Once we came back home, it was a few months before she was back to 90% (do you ever make it to 100% after something like that?).

Wow, what ride! But both happy to be alive

So, cancer beaten!  Then, and maybe then, it was time to focus on the PhD?  But alas, I'd picked up another course to convene, in first semester, called The Blue Planet.  Now I was without a semester off from teaching, was seriously behind on everything, and I was feeling pretty wiped out from it all!

What had I gotten myself into? Teacher/Researcher/PhD-er/Family-Man - what a load to carry! 

Thinking big - my PhD developed a city-wide simulation system for distributed solar PV systems.

Thinking big - my PhD developed a city-wide simulation system for distributed solar PV systems.

But you know what? After you battle your way through something as crazy as cancer, where you face your biggest fears - you actually come out on the other side with a different perspective.  I realised, that after that ordeal - I wasn't actually afraid of failure like I had been before.  A PhD thesis, convening two courses and running a research project, it all was much less intimidating.  There was no more need to fear some distant failure, some imagined rejection, or any manufactured worries.  I'd been through the darkest period imagineable - and that perspective, really put me in a position of strength:  I wasn't afraid to dream big, take on large responsibility and slug it out one day at a time.  In fact, I began to see it as kinda fun.  A new freedom emerged - one where I wasn't held back by doubt, but was emboldened by believing in myself and a recognition of my own mortality. The time to go big, or go home, was now or never! 

So abandoning my philosophical promulgation, we can fast forward through 2014 and early 2015, and somehow, by April 2015, I was giving my final seminar. I had multiple publications under my belt, and it was time to do the dirty work - writing up my intro, conclusion and linking text.  My "PhD by compilation" was taking shape, and all I needed to do was put in the hours, and keep up that confident approach in the process.  

The death of my laptop, one month prior to submission...

The death of my laptop, one month prior to submission...

But, of course, life wasn't content to let me sail through though! I was constantly distracted by my efforts to get permanent residency (skills verification, english tests, medical exams, etc), my computer died in the final month of writing, and then my son decided to give our family the worst week-long gastro episode in existence.  And on top of that a new funding round emerged from ARENA which was far too good to pass up.  So instead of happily writing my PhD thesis in May-July 2015, I instead found myself preparing a grant application with multiple industry partners and a bit more of that bold, crazy thinking.  But nevertheless, I pulled it off, and here I am, just a few hours from submitting.

Upon reflection, I think that I've learned to tread carefully on the lines between (in)sanity!

So, in conclusion, when I submit that 200 page beast of epic proportions this afternoon at 3PM - I'll do it  with my cancer-punching wife by my side, ready to dream bigger than ever, with a resounding "Hell yeah! I did it!" in my heart. And if I can, amidst all that has happened.  You can too!

Thanks PhD, for the adventure of a lifetime! 

Oh, and good riddance too! :-)

 

Student Project Opportunity: The Origin of Fog and Low-Cloud Events in Canberra

[NOTE: This project is no longer available, and has been undertaken by Sonya Wellby of the Fenner School of Environment and Society]


Intro

The meteorological events that impact solar energy generation are my area of expertise, so naturally I find them intensely interesting.  So why not a blog-post on the topic?  Let's do it!

There are many different types of cloud events that impact solar photovoltaic electricity generation it a wide variety of ways.  From thick stratus decks to thin high cirrus – there are plenty of things to research!   And today is your lucky day, because I want to share with you one of the types that I am most interested in: fog/low-cloud events

Why do we care?

So why the interest?  Well, first, fog events are very common in Canberra, leaving the city shrouded in thick low clouds with limited visibility many of the mornings throughout the year.  Just how common? Let’s take a look at all a distribution of the relative humidity and wet-bulb measurements over the past 3 years as observed at the Canberra airport:

CBR_rh_hist
CBR_depr_hist

I’d say that’s a pretty convincing set of histograms – Canberra certainly sees a large number of periods with high humidity/near saturation conditions.  These are quite often (but not always!) associated with fog.

This type of low cloud/fog hangs around until enough diffuse solar radiation has passed through it to re-start the boundary layer convective mixing process.  Once this gets going, the fog/low level cloud decks tend to ‘burn off’ very quickly.  How long it takes for this process to get started depends on how thick the low-level cloud deck is and whether or not there are also upper/mid level cloud decks in place to further reflect/scatter the solar radiation traversing the atmosphere.  Here is an example of a quick burn-off event, taken from a rooftop PV site:

12_sept_2012

Here, the red-portion of the time series is meant to represent when fog occurred [RH>85,WSP<10,WTB_DEP<3,CLEAR_SKY=FALSE], the blue is the power output from the PV array and the green is the relative humidity.  We can see a sudden and sharp increase in power output with a sharp drop in relative humidity.  Very cool!

I’m also quite keen to better understand these types of events, since they happen in the early morning, coinciding with the first peak in home energy demand.  Just as everyone is waking up, starting their tea kettles/coffee pots, flipping on the heaters and lights and getting their day started, our rooftop solar generation is stuck in low gear.  Rooftop solar arrays tend to operate at less than 40% of their clear sky potential under thick fog – and thus this type of weather event is very problematic for solar energy generation.  Here is a plot for the same day with that clear sky potential (KPV) plotted:

12_sept_KPV

In addition to the overall reduction in solar energy generation that occurs during this morning demand period, there is often a corresponding sudden ramp event that occurs as these clouds clear (like we just discussed).  The mixing process that drives the convective overturning of this stable cloud layer is a positive feedback process.  As it starts, more cloud is mixed out, so more radiation makes it through, the ground heats more, convection intensifies and more cloud is mixed out – and so on and so forth.  The result is a very quick disappearance of the low level cloud/fog.  This type of ramp event could be troublesome for areas with high PV penetration – as solar generation sites all suddenly produce more power.  In fact, I have some photos from the Canberra Yacht Club webcam that show this on 12 September 2012, let's take a look:

fog_dissipates

The cloud is very thick, but completely disappears within an hour - even with the presence of an upper-level cloud deck.

Furthermore, this convective mixing process happens unevenly throughout the region.  In Canberra, there is a lot of variation in topography, several lakes and a large geographic spread in the suburban area.  So correctly capturing where and when the cloud/fog will first mix out is a challenging problem.  You can see this from the ACT Solar Map graphics at 9:20AM and 10:10AM:

12_sept_AM1
12_sept_AM2

Notice how the fog/low-cloud dissipates unevenly?  This is also somewhat evident in the satellite imagery.

Project Opportunity

For this reason, I am currently recruiting an Honours Student from within the Fenner School of Environment and Society to undertake a project in this area.  The chosen candidate will analyze both weather and photovoltaic power data from the Canberra region to:

1)   Identify low-cloud/fog events

2)   Establish the origin and meteorological conditions leading to their formation

3)   Seek to describe the behaviour of the transition period that occurs as low-cloud/fog burn off

4)   Assess the impact of these events on collective PV power production

The skills gained in taking on this project will be invaluable for any student interested in pursuing a career/further studies in meteorology and or energy related fields. 

If you’re interested, send me an email!

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