As researchers revamp the electric grid
to better incorporate renewable energy
resources and modern sensors and control
systems, some U.S. schools are helping to
prepare a new generation of students that
can make a nationwide smart grid a reality.
A coalition made up of Syracuse University and five other New York schools received
a $2.5 million federal grant several years
ago to develop smart grid programs. With
$400,000 of the funding, Syracuse built a
scaled-down version of a working power grid
that includes a photovoltaic cell and a wind
turbine, a renewable energy analysis lab, and
a research area for smart home technologies.
The lab opened last fall, and electrical
engineering students use it for courses in
power systems, power engineering, small
grid systems, and power electronics. The
school has also added a power engineering
track within the electrical engineering major.
An important area of research for Syracuse University’s smart grid team is optimization—for example, finding ways to reduce
the need for power generated by coal, and
thus the resulting carbon dioxide emissions.
Renewable resources such as wind and
solar result in variable power generation
due to their intermittent nature. Syracuse
students are developing communication
systems that can work in almost real time
to address these variances. For instance,
control systems can reduce energy loads
by postponing tasks, such as the powering
on of air conditioning units.
Chilukuri Mohan, chairman of the school’s
electrical engineering department, explains
that there’s a “huge pent up demand” in
electrical engineering and power systems for
engineers trained in smart grid technologies,
since the supply of power systems engineers
is not meeting the current demand, and most
of the engineers in the field were trained on
older technologies. He believes that in the
last five years or so, electrical engineering
departments nationwide have realized the
need to increase the number of electrical
engineers interested in these areas.
The University of California, Los Angeles
is another school that has installed an
electric power microgrid and is involving
students in smart grid projects. One key
area of the school’s research is electrical
Researchers at the UCLA Smart Grid
Energy Research Center have developed
“EVSmartPlugs” that coordinate with a
smartphone app. Rajit Gadh, founding
director of the center, explains that the
system can use a tailored profile on the
app to determine how much power a user’s
car will need and by what time of day.
Adjusting the times the car pulls energy
to charge can reduce costs, points out
Gadh, also a professor of mechanical and
aerospace engineering at the school. UCLA
research teams have installed more than 50
charging stations with EVSmartPlugs on
campus and at other facilities.
In addition, students have been working
on smart appliances that have been
installed in a campus apartment complex.
Adding electronics to off-the-shelf appliances such as refrigerators and dryers
enables them to communicate with the local
microgrid and adjust the energy used if the
utility sends out a signal that loads need to
be reduced. Eventually, the aim is to have a
smart gateway that would talk to different
parts of the home (such as appliances or the
thermostat) and figure out where energy
could be shed when the utility requests it.
Technical, regulatory, and policy issues
still need to be worked out to implement
the smart grid, and large investments will
be required to get new technologies up and
running. But Gadh believes that, because
the work is in its early stages, smart grid
technologies are a huge opportunity for
students interested in energy.
syracuse unIversIty doctoral students dIscuss a power mIcroGrId confIGuratIon In the school’s smart GrId lab wIth a research assocIate professor
(left) and demonstrate software-based control of the mIcroGrId durInG an open house (rIGht).
Schools Get Smart (Grids)
stephen sartorI / KeeGan barber