High Powered Punch

September 30, 2013

The FREEDM Center draws upon vast expertise at NC State, including, from left: Seth Crossno, industry liaison; Rogelio Sullivan, managing director; Alex Huang, center director; and Ewan Pritchard, associate director. 
The FREEDM Center draws upon vast expertise at NC State, including, from left: Seth Crossno, industry liaison; Rogelio Sullivan, managing director; Alex Huang, center director; and Ewan Pritchard, associate director.

A severe summer storm roared across North Carolina's Triangle region in June, knocking out power to more than 28,000 homes and businesses, and reminding residents of the high-tech area just how dependent they are on a steady supply of electrical current. It's not just the loss of air conditioning that makes people sweat during a blackout. From computers and communication devices to entertainment consoles and even a new generation of cars, the essential tools of modern life run on power generated by utility companies.

"It's a very old system," says NC State professor Alex Huang, an expert in electrical and computer engineering. "In the future, it's going to change."

Huang is spearheading a global collaboration of leaders in research, industry and economic development to envision and then create the energy system of the future. With $20 million in funding from the National Science Foundation and $30 million in industry support, the effort has sparked the growth of dozens of clean energy businesses in the Triangle, making the region the epicenter of smart grid development.

Among the center's 50 industry partners are global leaders, including Duke Energy, Itron and Samsung, as well as newer enterprises, such as Triangle Technology Ventures and Sarda Technologies.

We're trying to create a new electric grid infrastructure that we call the energy Internet," Huang says. "We're looking at the whole distribution system. That's a huge engineering system. It's very, very complex."

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the smart grid will be more efficient, capable of meeting increased consumer demand without adding infrastructure; and be more intelligent, sensing system overloads and rerouting power to prevent or minimize a potential outage. It will accept energy from virtually any fuel source, and offer improved security and resiliency in case of a natural disaster or threat. It also will allow real-time communication between the consumer and utility, ushering in a new era of consumer choice.

The Center for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems, better known as FREEDM, is working to make these ideas reality. From headquarters on NC State's Centennial Campus, the NSF Engineering Research Center directs varied activities, from the creation of new devices that will allow energy to flow in more than one direction to the development of the software architecture that will give the smart system its brainpower.

"It's not a fundamental technology barrier we face," Huang says. "It's more a matter of systems engineering, along with business and policy challenges."

That's not to discount the importance of the new discoveries emerging from the FREEDM center. Research and development are key components of the center's work, especially in areas like energy storage, grid control and communication.

The facility boasts a 1-megawatt demonstration hub and real-time digital simulation lab, as well as labs specializing in computer science, power electronics, energy storage and motor drive technology. Under the FREEDM umbrella, researchers and students are tackling more than a dozen research projects in partnership with colleagues at Arizona State University, Florida State University, Florida A&M University and Missouri University of Science and Technology. That's just this year. In five years, the center has launched dozens of projects in fields ranging from systems theory to intelligent energy management.

The result is one innovation after another. Researchers have developed a technique that allows a common electronic component to handle voltages almost seven times higher; created an ultra-fast fault detection, isolation and restoration system; and invented a new solid-state transformer to replace the 100-year-old electromagnetic transformer. The new transformer gained international acclaim in 2011 when it was named one of the world's 10 most important emerging technologies by MIT Technology Review.

The center is working to commercialize these and a score of other new technologies, systems and devices.

Power to the People

Senior Travis Tippens has worked at the FREEDM center to earn a certificate in renewable electric energy systems. 
Senior Travis Tippens has worked at the FREEDM center to earn a certificate in renewable electric energy systems.

Think of the energy grid as an open faucet. It carries power in just one direction, and it's always on. The paradigm has worked for more than a century because power consumers and power generators occupy opposite ends of the grid. At the utility company's end, energy is primarily generated by burning fossil fuels. At the consumer's end, at what power companies called the edge of the grid, a meter records the amount of energy consumed. In today's energy marketplace, there are many buyers but most of the time one seller in a locale.

The system is strong, but not particularly flexible. Huang has a better system in mind.

A new infrastructure would support the individual customer participating in new roles in the electrical energy market.

Huang essentially wants to change the paradigm, creating an energy marketplace that supports many buyers and many sellers. Where will all that new energy come from? Homes, offices and small businesses, he says, in the form of alternative energy sources like solar panels and wind farms. Renewables account for a tiny share of the market now - about 5 percent in North Carolina - but have the potential to capture 50 percent or more.

To make that happen, the electrical grid will have to incorporate many of the new technologies under development at the FREEDM center.

"We'll have to create a totally new business concept of the grid," Huang says. "The grid will no longer have a single entity dominating the generation of power and the regulation of voltage and frequency."

Like the Internet, the smart grid will rely on a decentralized system connecting thousands of individual users in a robust network. The system will collect and process thousands or even millions of bits of data, and intelligently manage the flow of power across the network, ideally doing most of its work at the edge of the grid, close to the customer. This kind of system - called distributed generation - is potentially more efficient and environmentally sustainable than the existing system.

For the complete article, please see "High Powered Punch" by David Hunt.