Jimmy Chih-Hsien Peng
Jimmy Chih-Hsien Peng is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the National University of Singapore. He spent more than a decade in the power industry working on electricity grids in New Zealand, the Middle East and the United States. He has been nominated to serve on the Electrical & Electronics Standards Committee of the Singapore Standards Council and works with various government agencies in Singapore, including the Energy Market Authority.
Jimmy Chih-Hsien Peng never intended to go into the power sector, but it was a scholarship from Transpower in his second year of study that set him on the path that has defined his career.
“They opened up my view,” says Jimmy, “and offered me a job on the spot. I think for me it was lucky, I got my exposure and then decided to stay in the field.”
He worked with Transpower right up to and during his PhD, including a summer hauling equipment around rural New Zealand while interning with a transmission tower maintenance sub-contractor.
It was a “kind-of fun” experience for an Aucklander who grew up with “tons of resistors and capacitors” to play with, courtesy of his electrical engineer father.
Mostly, however, he was working on validating a new metering device, called a PMU, that can give engineers real-time information about instabilities in the electric grid. His research, the first of its kind in New Zealand, was subsequently incorporated into Transpower’s planning for future upgrades.
Jimmy’s expertise with this monitoring system became the basis for his next career move working on the massive new GCC Interconnection, a network linking six Gulf states.
But after working on this big-project stuff, he developed an interest in microgrids, small autonomous networks that can be useful in the wake of natural disasters and are looking like the future of electricity generation.
“The legacy systems or larger networks, they are like dinosaurs. The new era of modern grids is that you no longer depend upon one site to supply power.”
Jimmy’s move to Singapore in 2016 gave him the freedom to explore and tackle the sorts of problems presented by microgrids, for example, or cybersecurity.
Recent cyber attacks on power grids, such as the Ukrainian hack in 2015, led Jimmy to another area of research that has global impact – how disinformation could be weaponized to bring down critical infrastructure. It’s a breakthrough that has taken four years of research and involved working with social and computer scientists.
“It’s rewarding to discover that phenomenon, but it’s also concerning because of the potential destabilising effect on society. What we’re working on now is how we can prevent that.”
Jimmy has carried through the teamwork skills he learned at university to his own students in Singapore. “I’m very active generally in group work when we discuss topics, everyone will challenge each other. I say to them, the point is not to be polite to each other, but to solve the problems at hand.”
He also says that the University of Auckland’s emphasis on professionalism has been hugely valuable in his career. “We were told to be responsible for what you are committing to. So today when I talk to clients or fund granters, I’m always telling them, these are the hard facts, these are the realistic scenarios.”
Jimmy’s goal now is to get tenured, not easy in the North American system, and eventually apply for full professorship. With family in New Zealand, he hopes one day to return “if the opportunities are there”. In the meantime, he loves working with students.
“It can be crazy, like the weaponizing of disinformation, or something fun, and in that process we are able to give back to society.”