Clean energy innovations

PhD student Soheil Mohseni wanted to study in a country that was a pioneer in renewable energy—so New Zealand was the obvious choice.

“People in New Zealand are actually installing renewable energy systems, not just talking about them,” Soheil says. “At least 50% of the energy in the electricity sector of New Zealand is supplied by hydropower, which is a clean energy source.”

Now Soheil is working with Professor Alan Brent from the University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, looking at ways to deploy renewable energy systems on a large scale across the world.

“Despite falling costs and advancing green energy technologies, providing renewable energy to remote communities and the developing world is still a challenge,” Soheil says. “We’re looking at ways to create sustainable systems using whatever renewable power sources are available in an area, whether that’s wind, solar, hydropower, biomass, geothermal, or something else.”

Soheil is looking at a number of different methods of improving renewable energy systems for remote areas, including using artificial intelligence to build systems more suited to these environments. “Artificial intelligence can help with complex optimisation problems, like picking the best mix of equipment for a renewable energy system,” Soheil says. “It can also help develop computer programmes that can analyse complex weather data and thus help predict when natural resources will be available to be turned into renewable energy.”

So far, Soheil and Professor Brent have demonstrated that it is technically and economically possible to roll out AI-powered renewable energy systems in three semi-remote New Zealand communities: the 400 people living on Stewart Island, a 1000-strong community in Ohakune that swells to 8500 people during skiing season, and a rural community of about 350 people in Fielding. The next step is collaborating with researchers from the University of Technology, Sydney.

“Australia is a world-leader in renewable electrification of remote communities, with renewable energy projects rolling out across the country,” Soheil says.

Soheil’s research is very technically complex, which he admits can be challenging at times.

“Recently it took me more than a month to diagnose a problem in the computer code I was working on,” Soheil says. “I ended up having to split all my code into small chunks and go through them one by one, before reassembling them into one piece of code.”

However, there are also lots of benefits to the work. Aside from their progress in helping remote communities, Soheil has also enjoyed the support he has received from the University and his time in Wellington.

“I’ve been given everything I need for my research, and I really appreciate that,” Soheil says. “Wellington is also a very friendly and vibrant city with a love for the environment.”

Soheil plans to continue working in sustainable development after he finishes his PhD.

“I’m passionate about bringing clean energy to people in remote communities around the world so they can power their schools, hospitals, and other public institutions without using fossil fuels,” he says. “My preference would be to stay in academia, but no matter what, my ultimate dream is to make a valuable contribution to climate change mitigation and social equity in energy transformation.”