A GROUP OF UNIVERSITIES and labs in New Mexico is turning money into power, using a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to revamp the state's electrical grid.
The U.S. has made major strides over the past few years to decrease its use of fossil fuels and utilize new technologies to generate energy from sources such as wind and solar panels. And the effort has paid off: Renewable energy sources accounted for 11 percent of the nation's energy consumption in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
But the nation's power grid, which dates back to the late 1800s when Thomas Edison created the country's first power plant, wasn't made to support clean, renewable energy. That's where the students and scientists come in.
Andrea Mammoli, University of New Mexico's technical co-lead on the project, says the grant, awarded through a program called EPSCoR, will help the state become a major player in electric grid technology.
Mammoli spoke with U.S. News about the project, called the SMART Grid Center, and how he hopes it will make the electric grid more reliable and sustainable. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the SMART Grid Center's goals?
The research goals are essentially to create knowledge to modernize the electricity grid. How do we go from here to a grid that is more sustainable, more resilient and also more cost effective?
So there are a number of things that are enabling a transition to a different way of doing things.
One thing is the technology that allows for much cheaper distribution, generation and storage. We're seeing major cost reduction in portable battery devices, as well as the storage devices – solar panels and batteries, essentially.
Right now, for the most part, we are generating electricity at very large, central installations which could be coal or gas plants; it could be nuclear plants. They're delivering electricity to guest users through a transmission network, which then goes to substations, and the substations step down the voltage and distribute the power to the end users through distribution feeders. We're saying, let's take the distribution feeders, and we are going to make those into something that looks like a microgrid.
How are microgrids more resilient than the current electric grid?
A microgrid is an electrical circuit with its own power generation and its own loads that is able to work either in grid connected mode or island grid mode. … However, 99 percent of the time this is going to be connected to the bulk grid. But if the bulk grid goes down for whatever reason, this microgrid can keep going. It can support critical services and hopefully more than critical services.
How can microgrids use renewable energy?
The problem with these new sources of energy like wind and like solar is that they are very intermittent. They are available when they're available. We can to some extent forecast them, we have some statistics about them, but we still cannot say for sure tomorrow this solar panel is going to produce (a certain amount of) power. That's also true if we look at the short-term scale. We don't know exactly when there's going to be clouds in the sky that are going to get in the way between the sun and the solar panels.
However, with microgrids, you are doing two things: First of all, we are going to deploy a lot of storage. This storage could be batteries, community-level batteries at the substation, it could be batteries that are installed in people's houses, and it could even be electric cars. So potentially we could connect (these batteries) to the electrical grid and use them to provide service, if necessary.
And then the other thing we're going to do at the local level is we're going to be able to control loads of energy much more than we do now. Take appliances like clothes dryers or washers or water heaters. We can say, "OK, I don't need to use this machine right now, and given that right now I don't have enough power to use this machine, I'm going to delay its use by an hour or a half an hour."
What is one challenge with updating the electrical grid?
In general, with the current electricity system, we're trying to make it do what it was not designed to do. It was designed to transfer power from central locations to end users and right now we're redesigning it so the power can flow in all directions instead of just one direction. So all the things we were doing before, like for example protection systems, we're going to have to redesign all of those as well.
There's also a lot more information that's going to flow, and when information flows there is the danger that it gets intercepted and corrupted, and that people do bad things with it. So we're going to have to be very careful about cybersecurity and all those things as well.
How will these changes impact how people use energy on a daily basis?
As consumers, we're going to be much more aware of where the energy comes from… how much it costs at any given time. Right now, I don't care. I get a bill at the end of the month and I don't care how that came about. … In the future, I think people are going to be much more aware because there are going to be interfaces on smartphones and your car interface or your home management system, and it's going to make you a lot more aware of where the energy comes from.
How will the project create job growth in the state?
We're going to be hiring a ton of students. We're going to be engaging undergraduate students and also high school students with outreach activities. And also we're going to have scholarship programs and small internal grants for new faculty. We're going to be adding a lot of faculty, we're going to be updating infrastructure, we're going to be buying technical equipment, so really it's a jump-start for becoming really nationally competitive in this area.