Using Technology to Manage U.S. Energy Resources

Posted: May 24, 2010 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: May 20, 2010 at 10:40 am

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty

Daniel Menascé. Creative Services photo

What if there were a magical invention that would help the United States achieve energy independence, create new jobs, lower costs for consumers and adhere to ecofriendly standards to boot?

It sounds too good to be true, but a new technology called “smart power grids” could be just the ticket.

Mason computer scientists Daniel Menascé and Alex Brodsky are at the forefront of helping this idea become a reality.

What exactly are smart grids?

In short, a smart grid would change the pattern in which power flows.

Instead of a centralized, producer-controlled electric network, the smart grid would enable distributed generation of energy from residential solar panels and wind farms.

Alex Brodsky. Creative Services photo

Most important, the new grid would use smart technology to more efficiently deliver energy to consumers, which would in turn lower electricity consumption and costs, improve reliability, lower carbon emissions and increase our nation’s independence of foreign oil.

But to fulfill the promise of smart power grids, the federal government will need experts to design systems that determine the most efficient use of energy.

Menascé, senior associate dean in the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering, was reviewing grant possibilities, including stimulus package funding, when he came across a funding program that supported smart power grids work.

Menascé knew that Brodsky, who had experience in the energy sector, would be an excellent fit for such an opportunity. Thus, the two started Mason’s Center for Smart Power Grids a year ago.

“There’s a lot of expertise in the school and also the university that justified creating a center that would work in this arena and also respond to these kinds of opportunities,” says Menascé.

For the Center for Smart Power Grids, research with real-world applicability is a necessity.

Brodsky, as director of the center, guides investigations into how to solve the very real problems of the current out-of-date electrical grid.

“The Department of Energy estimates that due to power outages, American businesses lose about $100 billion a year,” says Brodsky, citing the 2003 Northeast Blackout as one example of how widespread such losses can be.

In addition to reducing energy outages, a new grid would also address the inefficiency of the current power grid.

Brodsky says, “If we could make the generation and distribution of power just 5 percent more efficient, it would be equivalent to taking 53 million cars off the road in terms of carbon emissions.”

He adds, “The problems are much broader than any single discipline, and the solutions require bringing a number of disciplines together.”

By its very nature, the center is interdisciplinary.

Smart power grid research touches on economics, computer science, engineering, mathematics and public policy.

The center attracted a 30-person team comprising researchers in all these disciplines from Mason, the University of Vermont and Chapman University.

Menascé, who also chairs the center’s advisory board, and Brodsky narrowed the center’s focus to four key areas:

  • Information technology. Installing smart power grid systems will necessitate two-way communication between the electric utility and the consumer, so knowledge of cutting-edge technology is a must.
  • Optimization and decision guidance. This area of Brodsky’s expertise will be needed to figure out the best combinations of different energy sources for maximum efficiency and cost savings to the consumer.
  • Economics. Working with Mason professor emeritus and Nobel laureate Vernon L. Smith, center researchers will evaluate the supply and demand for energy.
  • Public policy. Knowledge of governmental organizations will be key to securing and using public funding and will aid in working with federal governing bodies, such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The center is also a part of a coalition of universities and electric companies along the Eastern seaboard that will work together to address problems with the current grid and create solutions for researching, designing and implementing smart power grids.

This newly formed group, called the Mid-Atlantic Alliance, involves three major utilities (Dominion, BG&E and Pepco); seven universities from Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia; and eight affiliated national research centers and laboratories under the umbrella of the Chesapeake Crescent Initiative.

This alliance will address how to empower consumers to make smart usage choices (such as using energy during off-peak hours), optimize distribution (such as designing systems that would minimize blackouts) and optimize energy use in large organizations (such as developing ways to better coordinate massive energy consumers including universities, federal agencies, hospitals and industrial complexes).

One concrete solution Brodsky is investigating is something called a decision-guided energy management system.

This system would act as the brain of a complex’s pre-existing management system and would provide options to its operators based on a whole host of conditions.

For example, it might take into consideration class schedules on a university campus and accordingly adjust lighting or thermostat settings based on this input.

A large lecture hall filled with 200 students would need less heating than a similarly sized room with only 30 occupants. By considering the factors and making adjustments, energy could be saved in the process.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Mason Research 2010.

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