Going to the next level

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Print this page Heather B. Hayes

No one understands more about the challenges of providing electric power than James Thorp. As head of the Bradley Department of Electrical Engineering at Virginia Tech, he has spent three decades working to improve the industry’s ability to measure, predict and control the flow of electricity across the power grid. A particular concern has been guarding against sudden, unexpected surges that create devastating blackouts over large areas.

On campus, Thorp’s work has earned him the nickname of “blackout buster.” His research with Arun Phadke, an engineering professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, has garnered them a prestigious award, the 2008 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering presented by the Franklin Institute, a museum in Philadelphia.

That type of work was the easy part, he says. Upgrading the country’s outdated power grid so that it can integrate renewable energies is his current challenge. And help is on the way. The president’s stimulus package includes $50 billion for technology advancing green-energy sources, such as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal energy.

“I think the stimulus money will be an accelerator,” he says. “What might have taken 20 years might now be done in five years, because there’s more access to money, and we’ve got the attention and the support that’s needed to push these things along.”

The timing for this injection couldn’t be better. Virginia universities are flush with research activities in areas such as harnessing wind and solar energy; turning algae, switchgrass and other plants into biofuel; improving photovoltaics; developing electric and hybrid cars; improving the energy efficiency of homes; and enabling a “smart” power grid.

Many of the projects are fairly mature and, once transferred to industry, have the potential to fuel new businesses and create highly skilled “green” jobs. Funding could help them advance from theory to practice.

Those involved with many of the projects expect to apply for stimulus money. The availability of funds, though not a panacea, will enable researchers to spend less time chasing grants and more time doing research, says John Noftsinger, vice provost for research and public service at James Madison University.

But knowing that billions of dollars are available won’t change the way universities do business. “We won’t chase stimulus money for the sake of chasing stimulus money,” Noftsinger says. “We’ll look at our capabilities and go after it where it’s appropriate in a planful way.”

Here’s a look at two programs under way at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech:

More energy-efficient homes
Although cars often take the rap, homes are actually the biggest perpetrators of personal greenhouse gas emissions. “The reality is that even the most inefficient SUV is sending out less carbon, when you look at all sources, compared to a conventional, average American home, by a factor of two,” says John Quale, an assistant professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia.
That fact motivated Quale and U.Va. engineering professor P. Paxton Marshall to develop an interdisciplinary project called ecoMOD. It challenges students to design and build homes that are highly energy efficient but reasonably priced. The ecoMOD program partnered with affordable housing organizations to come up with designs that would help needy families.

Their goal is to use student-designed prototypes in the modular home industry, which prefabricates homes at the factory rather than on-site. These companies eventually are expected to create home plans based on the ecoMOD designs for affordable housing organizations and low- and middle-income home buyers.

Since 2005, students have come up with three prototype designs that are at least 50 percent more energy efficient than traditional site-built homes. The designs include a two-unit condominium, a detached single-family home and a renovated historic home. The homes contain practical but highly efficient materials and systems, including passive solar design, solar hot-water heating, solar photovoltaics, rainwater collection systems, structural insulated panels, c-shaped steel studs, blow-in insulation, high-performing windows, and appliances and siding made from cement fiberboard or corrugated sheet metal.

Engineering students in the ecoMOD project also have developed a wireless monitoring system that allows homeowners to identify how much electricity is used by different components of the home. “One of the big problems with homeowners trying to save energy is that they don’t get any feedback about the energy they’re using or the cost until the end of the month,” says Marshall. “With this, not only can they tell the total amount of electricity they’re using on a minute-by-minute basis but also how much is being used for the heat pump, how much for hot water heating, how much for the refrigerator and so forth.”

In addition to helping homeowners change their energy-use habits, the monitoring system also has features that automatically curb consumption. By relying on sensors, for example, the system would reduce the thermostat if no one was home. It also could shut down a dryer or an air conditioner if it’s operating during peak demand hours when energy costs are most expensive.

The ecoMOD project is eligible for stimulus money set aside for improving energy efficiency in affordable housing, as well as for research and development (for the monitoring system).
Quale notes that the ecoMOD team is negotiating with modular home companies and affordable housing organizations to adapt their designs to sites in Charlottesville and Abingdon.
Making the power grid smarter

Virginia Tech’s Thorp oversees a flurry of research and development activity designed to create a more intelligent power grid. That means research ranging from the use of analog television channels to communicate with wireless power meters to the development of better electric and hybrid car engines.

One of his top concerns is updating the electric grid, a jumble of more than 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. The grid needs to be changed, he says, so it can utilize renewable sources like wind, solar, tidal and geothermal energy. “It is literally the same grid in 2009 that it was in 1965, when we had the first big blackout on the East Coast,” says Thorp. His primary research involved the use of microprocessor controllers and global positioning satellite technology to provide real-time measurements of voltages and currents at substations across the power grid. His work has resulted in a significant reduction in the number and duration of major power outages.

Thorp is currently doing research for the California Institute for Energy and the Environment (CIEE) on how to adapt the grid to handle a major influx of power from renewable energy sources. The
electrical flow from these sources is much less predictable than from traditional sources such as coal-fired generation plants, Thorp explains.

He cites the example of a recent experiment at Block Island, R.I. For years, utility officials had run the power system solely off of diesel fuel. In hopes of reducing their reliance on fossil fuels, they decided to add a giant windmill to the mix. They quickly realized that they were using as much if not more diesel fuel than ever.

Why? “With just diesel, they were running the power system at constant speed, like driving a car on the highway, trying to get the most efficiency out of the diesel. If they knew the energy load would pick up in the morning, for example, they could slowly accelerate,” Thorp says. “The windmill, because the wind blows and the wind stops and it is generating power without any real control, was a lot more like driving in city traffic, and the diesel had to follow along and fill in the gaps.”

Thorp’s development of time-synchronized measurements is a major part of efforts to predict and control the energy volatility that occurs with renewable sources. Nonetheless, the way the power grid is run ultimately will have to be overhauled. The stimulus package contains $11 billion for that purpose, but it’s not enough, Thorp says. In fact, some estimates state that as much as $100 billion will be needed. 

“If you had 20 percent penetration of renewables, which, in fact, is what Ireland has now with windmills on their west coast, the grid could survive,” says Thorp. “But if you wanted to go to 50 percent penetration, which is the dream of California, and try to get half of the energy from renewables, the grid today just can’t do it. The grid needs help. So we’re making progress towards that, but we’ve got a very long way to go.”

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