Clemson researchers work on future of nation’s electrical grid

Staff Report
gsanews@scbiznews.com
Published April 15, 2014

With the help of power company money, Clemson University professors are helping develop smart grid technologies. Keith Corzine is working on securing the nation’s flow of electricity, a challenge he says was underscored in April 2013 when gunmen attacked a Silicon Valley substation.

“This kind of attack at multiple locations around the country could take out the grid,” said Corzine, who works on the main campus as the Warren H. Owen-Duke Energy distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering.

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Researchers are looking for ways to keep the grid secure, help drive down the cost of renewable energy and make the system more reliable and efficient.

“We are all completely dependent on electric power,” Corzine said in a statement. “Without power, you can’t put gas in your car. You can’t refrigerate or cook the food in your home.”

Corzine is working to advance microgrids that cover a limited area — such as a neighborhood or office park — and generate power locally without dependence on the nationwide grid.

While the nation’s grid runs on alternating current, many microgrids run on direct current to help bring down the cost. One of the challenges with DC systems is they have limited circuit breaker options to take them offline when something goes wrong, Corzine said. He said electricity keeps flowing, leaving the system vulnerable to fire.

Corzine said he has designed and built advanced DC circuit breakers and is now doing laboratory tests.

Much of the funding for Clemson’s facilities for energy systems development and testing comes from partnerships. With a $5 million gift, Duke Energy named the Electric Grid Research, Innovation and Development. Duke provided funds for laboratory infrastructure, educational program development and a Smart Grid Technology Endowed Chair for a future Clemson faculty member. The project involves a hardware-in-the-loop simulator that can replicate any grid to investigate how the grid and devices such as wind turbines and solar arrays interact, especially when the grid becomes unstable.

While valuable for testing, the eGRID will also provide experience for students who will become grid and power system engineers, said Sam Holeman, Duke Energy director of system operations engineering and training.

“They’ll bring this skill set to the companies they work for,” Holeman said.

The eGRID is housed at the S.C. Electric and Gas Energy Innovation Center, located at Clemson University Restoration Institute in North Charleston. The utility supported the center with a $3.5 million gift.

Dr. Elham Makram, the S.C. Electric and Gas Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said experience offered at the institute can’t be taught in the classroom. She is sending two graduate students to Charleston this year and expects to send more in years to come.

The restoration institute also houses an advanced testing facility for wind turbine drivetrains. The $98-million facility included $53 million in state and private contributions and a $45 million award from the U.S Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

A drivetrain takes energy generated by a turbine’s blades and increases the rotational speed to drive the electrical generator, similar to the transmission in a car.

Kumar Venayagamoorthy, Clemson’s Duke Energy Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is working on a monitoring system intended to help balance wind and solar power with conventional power generation.

Venayagamoorthy said that while shortfalls in wind and solar power can be balanced with conventional means, weather forecasts aren’t accurate enough to predict how much conventional power generation will be needed. He is working at the Real-Time Power and Intelligent Systems Laboratory at Clemson.

“We know how to integrate renewables — sensors can be put on the grid,” Venayagamoorthy said. “But the question is how can we process the information just in time to keep the grid together.”

Clemson’s J. Curtiss Fox, director of operations for eGRID, said the system originally designed to send power from utility to customer will now have to go both ways.

“The model and how it all works is changing,” he said. “You take a system that you’ve perfected to work in one way over 90 or 100 years and start saying, ‘OK, we want to dramatically change how that works.’ ”

The existing system has allowed utilities to make automatic adjustments based on customer demand. Adding new grid contributors, including some not controlled by utilities, introduces unpredictability and complexity that makes it more difficult to keep the electrical flow balanced.

“The biggest challenge is how you integrate all these emerging technologies with central plant generation but do it in the most efficient manner,” said Zak Kuznar, senior project manager for emerging technology at Duke Energy.

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