Educational program to advance electric power microgrid engineering curriculum

03/14/2014

If Alexander Graham Bell came back today and saw the improvement technology has made on his first telephone, he would be astonished. But according to CSL Professor Peter Sauer, if Thomas Edison came back, he wouldn’t be all that surprised at what has developed in the power industry.

“Electric power grid utilities have been criticized for being old and decrepit and stodgy and in a way, that’s true,” Sauer said. “So the smart grid is a way of advancing the technology of the power system by using computers, cell phones, etc. The industry is changing and whether we help it or not is up to us. We could sit back and teach the same old stuff we always teach or we could get out and push the edge.”

That’s exactly what Sauer and fellow CSL faculty members Alejandro Dominguez-Garcia, Philip Krein, ECE faculty members George Gross and Robert Pilawa-Podgurski and Jana Sebestik, of the Office of Math, Science and Technology Education (MSTE), will be doing with their new $880,000, 5-year Department of Energy grant.

The group, called the MidAmerica Regional Microgrid Education and Training (MARMET) consortium, will be developing a microgrid training program for traditional and non-traditional settings that combines cutting-edge research and advanced instructional methods.

They will be teaming up with Missouri University of Science and Technology, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Iowa State University, along with Ameren Corporation, City Utilities, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and the Perfect Power Institute (PPI). The faculty members from each university, about 10 in total, will be collaborating with each other to develop the curricula, as well as working with industry advisers, such as PPI or NRECA.

“A significant opportunity exists to transform the electric power industry to be more reliable, more sustainable and more customer focused,” said Brian Bunte, Chief Operating Officer of PPI and PPI representative in the MARMET consortium. “However, education of current and future industry stakeholders is essential for this opportunity to be realized. This education will provide leaders with the tools to implement strategies that overcome resistance to change and move the industry toward a Smart Grid future.”

The group will be trying to leverage the current popularity of online classes, webinars and short courses, as well as working to develop a formal graduate curriculum. The classes could range from hour-long online seminars to semester-long courses for a degree.

The consortium is also part of the Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment (GEARED) Network, which is working to build a national network of centers that support training and education for electric utility sector professionals. These educational opportunities developed by MARMET will help advance GEARED’s goals, as well as contributing to other education programs, such as PPI’s electricity design and performance assessment guideline called the Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal (PEER) guide.

PEER establishes much-needed performance criteria to define sustainable electricity and to empower customers, communities, utilities and regulators to dramatically improve the power system performance. The guide will also help industry stakeholders assess, design, operate and improve electricity systems based on issues that matter most to consumers. As a part of the PEER program, PPI offers educational services, including classroom and web-based courses at an associate or professional level. Participating in MARMET will help PPI ensure that the knowledge objectives for their courses are comprehensive and aligned with courses offered at universities and key industry groups like IEEE, as well as offer their professionals and smart grid engineers more educational tools.

In addition to the educational focus, the MARMET researchers will also focus research efforts on topics such as operational optimization, modeling and analysis, system architecture development, and ac/dc hybrid distribution.

Illinois’ attention will be on research of microgrids, which are electrical sources that operate in addition to the local utility company. For example, a building by itself with a generator is a microgrid and by linking multiple buildings with generators, you can create a small, separate power grid.

Sauer, Dominguez-Garcia, Krein and Gross will be studying the process of creating micro grids, switching distribution systems back and forth and how to get the maximum use out of microgrids.

“The idea is that you can use all the generators to help all the people in the most economic and effective way,” Sauer said. “Microgrids are an opportunity to survive if you’re cut off from the big grid and there’s not a lot of them out there. There are lots of buildings with generators, but they’re all individual, so it’s a matter of hooking up a bunch of islands together to make a bigger island, which is more flexible and able to use all the power that’s generated.

Although the project is just in the very beginning stages, Sauer has already seen the effect in the classroom that a project like this can cause.

“The content of what we already teach is going to change right away,” he said. “I’m already teaching things differently today than I was in December because of MARMET. That’s how it works. We begin including more content about our research into our classrooms when we start a new project.”