Professor, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering | Cockrell School of Engineering
By Gary Rasp
As a kid growing up in Sydney, Australia, Ross Baldick was always good at math. By the time he was seven years old, when he began experimenting with an electronics kit his cousin had given him, the fundamental curiosity of how things work had begun to materialize.
“I became very interested in electronics, and that started me in the direction of electrical engineering,” he recalls.
He also realized in high school that he had a knack for distilling complex concepts into language understandable to non-technical audiences. That talent comes in handy for someone who teaches courses on the optimization of engineering systems and the intricacies of restructured electricity markets, as Baldick has since arriving at UT Austin in 1994.
Baldick’s father, an engineer who performed chemical analyses for a leather tanning company in Sydney, encouraged his son to pursue his academic interests.
“I grew up in Australia in a particularly propitious time for funding of public high schools,” he says, adding that he had the good fortune of studying under a high school math teacher, fresh out of university, with a strong background in science.
“She really provided a lot of extra curricula and wonderful guidance to me,” Baldick recollects. “In retrospect, I felt it was an incredibly good academic experience for me with a lot of rigor.”
While an undergraduate, Baldick had an internship with a government-owned electric utility in the state of New South Wales. He continued to work with the utility after attending the University of Sydney, where he received a double bachelor’s degree in physics/math and electrical engineering.
Baldick also had the opportunity to travel to Tokyo for a two-month fellowship with Toshiba at the end of his senior year, which he describes as “a phenomenal cultural experience.”
“It was extraordinary,” he recalls of his stay in Japan. “Every street corner I turned I saw something I’d never seen in Sydney.”
Baldick had several choices for his graduate studies, ultimately opting for the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in the late-1980s and 1990, respectively.
He stayed on the West Coast for his post-doctoral work in utility policy and planning at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in 1991- 92. It was toward the end of his Ph.D. and particularly during his postdoc work that Baldick became engrossed in what was then a relatively new development – the unbundling of electric utilities as part of a restructuring of the industry that sanctioned competitive markets.
“That really started the ball rolling,” he recalls. “It got me interested in applying my understanding of power system economics to a liberalized electricity market.”
Baldick’s foray into restructured electricity markets as a post-doctoral fellow has led to a career focus on the central questions of “how to optimally plan the system, operate the system and markets, and control the system to deliver electricity reliably.”
After concluding his post-graduate work, he accepted a position in Massachusetts at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he taught courses in control and electric power systems.
Two years later, in 1994, Baldick moved on – this time to UT Austin, where, as a professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, he conducts research in his preferred areas of study and teaches courses to both graduate and undergraduates.
Baldick has expanded his research topics to include the integration of renewable sources of energy into the electric grid and electrification of the transportation industry.
“My research space has always been informed by not only the technical details but also the economics and the policy implications,” he notes.
Baldicik’s course for graduate students, “Optimization of Engineering Systems,” is based on his book, Applied Optimization.
Over the years, he also has taught a short-course, “Introduction to Electric Power” for legal, accounting, and regulatory agency staff. He also has taught a one-day course, “Locational Marginal Pricing” which began as a primer for a group of merchant plant owners.
Eventually, Baldick conceived a course for UT graduate engineering students – “Restructured Electricity Markets” – that covers many of the same topics used in his short courses but with technical details. While his pupils have a greater understanding of microeconomics and are adept at solving equations, many still found the engineering material difficult to fully comprehend – until Baldick decided to fold in the same analogies he had crafted for the non-technical crowd.
“Making it vivid is helpful,” he observes.
In addition to his course work and research, Baldick also is a co-organizer of the Austin Electricity Conference, an annual forum for engineers, economists, policymakers, scholars, lawyers and other experts in the electric utility industry. Now in its seventh year, the conference has built a reputation as one of the preeminent gatherings for high-level discussion of topical issues in a rapidly evolving world of energy.
The event, sponsored by Calpine Corporation, Oncor Corporation, UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering, McCombs School of Business, and School of Law, with support from the Energy Institute, is organized around short panel presentations from experts, followed by robust discussion among participants.
The theme for this year’s conference is what appears to be an inexorable movement toward a ‘decarbonization’ of the electric grid. Participants discussed the effect of market forces, particularly low natural gas prices and declining cost of renewables, as well as improved methods for integrating renewable energy into the grid.
Baldick, whose dry wit and blunt appraisals frequently add sparkle to otherwise humdrum meetings, at times seems to relish the role of provocateur.
He says he “has no problem” with the growth of residential and community solar, but notes the retail pricing model in place today does not provide an equitable mechanism for ensuring that customers who generate their own electricity continue to pay for maintaining the electric grid.
“To the extent that people are putting up solar and are consuming less energy from the grid, they are not paying for” transmission and distribution system upkeep, he says.
“I think going forward we need to solve the issue of financing the transmission and distribution system in a manner that does not rely on a volumetric energy-based price … so that these (distributed) resources are not being subsidized by the consumption of everybody else.”
While the debate over so-called net metering and other related issues rages on, one aspect of the answer to decarbonization is clear-cut, Baldick adds.
“Don’t focus on particular industries; don’t focus on particular technologies; impose a price on carbon,” he says, observing that, “just about everybody who doesn’t have an axe to grind would agree with that.”
On the issue of government incentives designed to boost wind and solar power, again Baldick weighs in with gusto.
Production Tax Credits and Investment Tax Credits provided by the federal government are “clumsily aimed at renewables,” he says, “rather than non-carbon producing resources; so they don’t benefit nuclear, which doesn’t produce carbon.”
“It’s unconscionable to not want to utilize this low-carbon producing resource that we’ve already invested so much in, particularly since many of the (nuclear plants) are on the verge of extinction,” he adds.
Baldick, a Fellow of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the recipient of the 2015 IEEE PES Outstanding Power Engineering Educator Award, has published over 90 refereed journal articles. Go here for a complete list of his research papers and other publications.
Gary Rasp is the communications director for UT Austin’s Energy Institute.