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It's one thing to get a Smart Grid to work, another to win over the public. A university-business partnership seeks to do both.

Few would argue against the need to transform America’s aging and increasingly decrepit electric-power grid into a more robust Smart Grid, using digital technologies. But ultimately, consumers must buy in to the concept. And for that to happen, emerging technologies will have to be dead-simple to use, generate cost savings, improve efficiency, and “have a cool factor,” says Alex Huang, a professor of electrical engineering at North Carolina State University.

That’s where the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center comes in. Directed by Huang, the federally funded center is a seven-university international consortium with 44 industry partners headquartered at NCSU. It seeks to develop and demonstrate technologies so cool that they’ll revolutionize the power grid and hasten the day when America can use more renewable fuels to generate electricity. While advancing toward that goal from many directions, the FREEDM Center is focused particularly on three targets: a two-way digital communications backbone for the grid, lightning-fast solid-state transformers, and improved batteries – particularly for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. “The technology to do all of this is still not ready,” Huang admits. But, he quickly adds, “we are making great progress.”

Today’s grid is a one-way system. Power companies generate and distribute electricity from large – and in the United States, mainly coal-fired – plants to businesses and households. Because the flow of electrons through the grid needs to remain uninterrupted, the grid’s not good at accommodating power from renewable sources, like and wind and sunshine, because they’re intermittent supplies. But using digital technologies and two-way communications to better control, manage, and balance demand and generation will make it easier to bring renewables online. Ultimately, a Smart Grid will also allow users to sell electricity back to utilities from, say, home solar panels or idling electric vehicles, or EVs.

Denver-based Green Energy Corp., a FREEDM Center industry partner that develops communications software for the grid, is heavily involved in designing a two-way communications system. Based on the firm’s grid-management software, it’s an open-source, cloud-based system that lets utilities upgrade legacy networks with plug-and-play applications from outside companies. “Our technology works with any vendor’s technology,” says Roxy Podlogar, Green Energy’s vice president for product strategy. Two-way communications is also key to relying on renewable fuels, since it allows a grid to automatically and instantaneously switch power sources if one or more start to fade.

A superfast, solid-state, electronically controlled transformer will act as an “energy routing device” between the grid and consumers, the so-called last mile of an intelligent grid, says Huang, who is leading its development. Traditional copper and iron transformers “can change voltage, and that’s all.” His semiconductor-based transformer will also change frequencies, and connect to both AC and DC devices, including electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels. “It’s an enabling technology for a more actively controlled grid,” Huang adds. The transformers also will be smaller and lighter than today’s, and produce less heat.

Faults, of course, can and will occur in any power system, but they needn’t be disruptive. The average U.S. household is without power for around four hours a year; in Japan, the average is a mere seven seconds a year. So the center’s researchers are working on a device, a sort of electronic circuit-breaker, that immediately isolates faults and reroutes power. “If you have a fault,” Huang says, “the goal is to lose zero customers. The expectation is perfect power.”

A Smart Grid system more dependent upon renewables will need to store massive amounts of energy, so battery technology is another area of research. However, for now, the center’s focus is mainly on batteries for EVs and plug-in hybrids because of the ongoing push from Washington and the auto industry to make electric powertrains the next big thing. If these cars sell in great numbers, as is hoped, it could affect the grid, especially if too many drivers decide to plug in at once. If, for instance, there are 100 EVs in a parking deck, “that becomes a very complex control problem,” Huang says. “Which one do you charge first, which one second, and at what rate? That’s a grid control problem.”

Center researchers are also using a technique developed at NCSU called electrospinning that weaves nanofibers into a new composite material for lithium-ion battery anodes, enabling them to store more energy and endure more abuse. And, to be sure, assaults on batteries – and the grid – could occur during fast charging. Ideally, car batteries would be charged slowly, overnight – when demand and rates are low – but obviously there will be times when drivers can’t wait that long. Asks Huang: “Can you really charge them in 20 minutes? And how much charge can be put in in 20 minutes and not cause damage?” Those are questions his researchers hope to answer.

The “cool factor” in these novel technologies needs to be demonstrated. So the 20,000-square-foot center has its own 1-megawatt microgrid, which soon will be festooned with all sorts of devices, monitors, control software, and power sources, including EV charging stations and juice from a 40-kilowatt solar array donated by Germany’s AEG Power Solutions. Also in the works are plans to link the microgrid to a model “smart building” that IBM is constructing within the center to demonstrate to commercial building owners how energy-management software can cut power usage by 10 percent. “We want customers to come in and say, ‘Oh, now I get it,’” explains L. Steven Cole, the IBM program strategy manager who’s setting up the site. It also will demonstrate software that lets users switch from in-house solar or microturbine systems to the grid and back. “It’s not a simple thing to do,” Cole adds. Rogelio Sullivan, the center’s assistant director, calls IBM a good fit:  “What they’re doing parallels our work.”

Industry’s Major Role

The FREEDM Center is part of the Obama administration’s multibillion-dollar research and development effort to transition the nation into the Smart Grid, or Energy Internet. Funded with an initial five-year, $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the center comprises NCSU; Arizona State, Florida State, and Florida A&M universities; the Missouri University of Science and Technology;RWTH Aachen University in Germany; and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. It’s anticipated that the NSF will renew the five-year grant when it expires in 2013. The center is also funded by $10 million that comes from the universities involved and industry fees. So far, it has 44 industry partners. Besides Green Energy, they include such heavyweights as Toyota, Duke Energy, and small start-ups like MegaWatt Solar along with IT giant Cisco. Having businesses play a major role in the center was in the plan from the start. Indeed, Green Energy Chairman Daniel Gregory headed the center’s industrial advisory board and helped write the grant proposal.

A FREEDM house aims to give residents maximum control over generating, storing, and even selling back energy. It includes: 

1. A plug-in electric car that can charge up or send energy to the home.

2. An outdoor router that monitors energy use and manages smart appliances, solar panels, and an on-site battery.

3. Uniform USB-like plugs that provide easy connection of energy-generation and storage devices to the grid.

4. Solar panels that can send excess energy to on-site storage.

5. Wireless communications to let residents adjust heat and lights from a smart phone or computer.

6. Smart appliances that communicate with the grid and turn on or off according to overall energy demand.

©2011 NSF FREEDM Systems Center

Huang’s confident that the FREEDM Center will demonstrate that the technologies it’s developing will work. “A harder question is how much of that will translate to the market,” he says. That’s a big reason the center was designed to have a strong industrial component. The market challenge is also embedded in another major element of the center: education. NCSU, via the center, offers a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with a concentration in renewable electric energy systems (REES), and graduate students can earn a certificate in REES. Moreover, next year the school will begin offering a one-year master’s degree in electric power systems engineering to professionals looking to update their skills and career prospects.

Center students are expected to be entrepreneurial and have a strong understanding of market forces. Not only are students required to take business courses to learn how to write a business plan and do market analyses, but each of the 20 research projects at the center has an industrial “champion” who works with faculty and students to help keep them commercially oriented. Venture capitalists are brought in to give researchers and students tutorials on launching start-ups. The so-called soft skills also are stressed. “Students must also have effective communications skills to work with the general public, business partners, and among themselves,” explains Leda Lunardi, a professor of electrical engineering and also the center’s education director. A useful training ground in these skills is an ambitious outreach operation aimed at middle and high schools that includes sending grad students into classrooms to do experiments and a Young Scholars program that brings students and teachers on campus for five weeks in the summer.

For now, the FREEDM Center has the prevailing political winds at its back. But, of course, that could change. The incoming Congress, for example, is heavily populated with climate-change skeptics. Could that ultimately affect funding for this type of research and sap industrial enthusiasm for Smart Grid technologies? No way, says David Bartlett, an IBM vice president who is overseeing the smart-building project. A Smart Grid offers the power industry too many advantages and cost savings, he says. “Every utility is involved in an upgrade to Smart Grid and digital technologies.” Huang agrees. Industry is “genuinely interested” in wanting a major overhaul of the grid, he says. “There is some robustness in this. I think for [industry] this is a long-term business decision.” If Huang’s right, the FREEDM Center’s future as a hotbed of research into cool technologies seems secure.


Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.




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