Researchers at NC State’s FREEDM Systems Center are developing devices and networks that will one day seamlessly connect rooftop solar panels with batteries that store energy in the basements below.

Smart grid central

June 12, 2011

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Call it the “smart grid.” Call it the “Energy Internet.” Whatever it’s called, NC State engineers are revolutionizing the way we use energy.

Researchers at NC State’s FREEDM Systems Center are developing what can be called the “smarts” of the smart electrical grid — devices and networks that will one day seamlessly connect rooftop solar panels with batteries that store energy in the basements below. At the same time, electric cars will charge in millions of garages, and consumers will sell extra electricity they generate back to the power company.

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Investigate what the house of the future will be like.

Solar Panels – Solar panels and other renewable energy generators provide supplemental energy for the house. Excess energy is strored in the on-site battery.

Wireless communication – Consumers make changes to their home energy system on the Internet. A consumer who leaves for work but forgets to turn off the air-conditioning, for example, could do so from a smartphone or workplace computer.

Smart appliances – Redesigned appliances communicate with the grid and adjust usage according to overall energy demand.

Plug-in hybrid electric car – Cars charge up at home. They can also store energy and send it back to the house or the grid.

Energy router – An energy router box outside the house monitors energy use and communicates with other homes and utilities. It changes high voltages to lower voltages, limits short circuits and provides unprecedented power quality. It also manages the smart appliances, solar panels and on-site battery.

NC State’s groundbreaking smart grid work helped prompt the White House to choose the university to be the host for a roundtable discussion on the smart grid and energy with members of President Barack Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. The session will be led by Jeffrey Immelt, chair of the council and chairman and CEO of GE. Executives from Southwest Airlines, Comcast Corp., NextEra Energy and many of the region’s leading smart grid companies are also scheduled to attend.

Session participants, including local energy experts and business leaders, will discuss ways to create jobs in the energy and smart grid industries through partnerships with academia and state and federal government agencies. The information gathered during the meeting will be shared with President Obama during the council’s Monday afternoon session in Durham.

The council meeting is another high-profile success for NC State’s smart grid research efforts. In April, a new type of transformer under development at the FREEDM Systems Center was named to MIT Technology Review’s 2011 list of the world’s 10 most important emerging technologies.

The devices, called smart solid-state transformers, represent a big step forward toward developing the smart energy grid of the future. Today’s grid, which has changed little since the days of Thomas Edison, only lets power flow in one direction — from the power company to the consumer. But as the cost of renewable energy technologies comes down and plug-in electric vehicles become more widespread, the grid will need an upgrade to handle the flood of devices that will not only consume energy, but push it back onto the grid.

The FREEDM Center’s smart transformers are built to manage power more effectively than today’s transformers. They will precisely control voltage, frequency and other electrical properties as they communicate with the rest of the grid. The devices will also help utilities incorporate lots of renewable energy into the grid with fewer blackouts or power surges.

Stephen Cass, special projects editor for the Technology Review, called the devices “a major advance for smart grids, allowing the flow of electricity to be controlled and rerouted in a manner similar to how data is routed around the Internet.”

FREEDM, which stands for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management, was formed in 2008 by a five-year, $18.5 million Engineering Research Center grant from the National Science Foundation.
The center benefits from its location in the Triangle, one of the nation’s top smart grid hubs. A recent Duke University study counted nearly 60 smart grid companies in the region. They include the power systems giant ABB, which is developing a Smart Grid Center of Excellence just down the road from FREEDM on NC State’s Centennial Campus.