By David Hunt
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.
“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
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.
Bridging the Divide
A block away from the FREEDM center, at the offices of a startup company called GridBridge, Chad Eckhardt is working to put some of the university’s innovations into the hands of utility companies. He has a receptive audience.
“The utilities have to do a great deal of heavy lifting on a daily basis to be able to provide power in the way that they do,” he says. “And now, to try to modernize the grid is a monumental task.”
Eckhardt, the company’s president, is a passionate entrepreneur who’s worked in the energy industry for more than a decade. He says the coming changes are long overdue and will help optimize the flow of electricity based on consumer demand.
“We’re operating a grid that was primarily designed in the early 1900s and hasn’t changed much, while consumers have changed dramatically,” he says. “We’re adopting all these new devices, such as electric vehicles, rooftop solar, even compact florescent light bulbs. These all cause problems on the grid.”
Utility companies see that they need to modernize, he adds, but they find the technical challenges daunting. That’s an opportunity for companies like GridBridge.
“We’re working with them to provide the devices, and the advanced intelligence and control they need, to be able to modernize the grid.”
One of the new technologies GridBridge is promoting is a way to integrate renewables and energy storage devices, including electric vehicles, into the grid.
“You can introduce these devices,” he says. “But how do you optimize the flow of electricity once they’re connected? It’s not that easy because there are so many variables. You need some brains in the system to control these devices and the resulting power flow.”
Utility companies need to maintain a steady flow of power to customers, but the system isn’t set up to handle the highly variable power generated by renewable energy sources like wind turbines and solar panels. On a sunny day, a solar array provides a lot of power, for example, but the power drops as soon as night falls. In order to provide steady power for the grid, the array needs an energy storage device, like a bank of batteries, along with innovative controls to tell the batteries when to charge and discharge and essentially to direct traffic on the system.
With the adoption of renewable energy production rising exponentially, the industry needs to find practical solutions fast.
“We’re on the front of a very large wave,” Eckhardt says. “Utilities want to help solve all these problems, but they need the equipment to do it. They need an advanced set of technologies.”
Utilities face financial as well as technical challenges. They need to modernize while preserving their enormous investment in a business model based on the existing infrastructure.
“Modernize doesn’t necessarily mean rip everything out,” Eckhardt says. “It means making the infrastructure operate better and more efficiently.”
To do that, GridBridge brings together researchers and industry clients to identify and solve the immediate, specific problems facing utilities.
“They have these great ideas, but how to do we begin to form them into tangible products?” he says. “That’s very difficult in a new frontier. We’re in a white-space area where we have to mold the research to fit today’s application environment. We have to do guided research in a way that thinks about cost and manufacturability.”
GridBridge isn’t the only company in the region eyeing the opportunities for energy innovation.
A recent study identified 169 firms within the 13-county Triangle region, including 16 Fortune 500 companies, working to develop sustainable solutions to the world’s energy needs. The sector, called cleantech by the industry, spans every county in the region.
Lee Anne Nance, executive director of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, spearheads a collaborative network called the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster that promotes the region’s competitive edge in the global marketplace by building on local strengths and nurturing new areas of innovation. Its members include some of the industry’s biggest players, including Duke Energy, Siemens Energy, ABB Inc. and Schneider Electric, as well as major high-tech companies such as SAS, Cisco, Power Analytics, Sensus, Power Secure, RTI International and Field2Base.
Combined, they pack a powerful punch, employing thousands of high-skill workers and driving innovation in energy management, water, transportation, data analytics, information technology, renewable energy, electronics and engineering.
“This is a disruptive and transformational time in infrastructure delivery throughout the world and our region is leading the way,” Nance says. “We’re right in the middle of the action and that’s good for the economy, the people who work here and the people who live here.”
Although the cleantech sector in North Carolina is young, it has experienced explosive growth in the past few years, emerging as a global leader in the field. The group was invited to join the International Cleantech Network, making it one of just two U.S. members of the exclusive partnership, based in Denmark.
The FREEDM center may be the region’s biggest success story, but it’s hardly the only one. For example, research teams at NC State, UNC Chapel Hill, North Carolina Central, RTI International and Duke are working together on a $17.5-million project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to synthesize new molecular catalysts and light absorbers and integrate them into nanoscale architectures for improved generation of fuels and electricity from sunlight.
“This region is well positioned for the future because of our community colleges and universities,” Nance says. “We bring in more than $2 billion in research funding every year through our research universities and organizations.”
Wade Fulghum, who helped launch the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster, leads venture development efforts within NC State’s Office of Technology Transfer. He sees firsthand how the region’s commitment to higher education pays off in the marketplace.
“There are many opportunities for collaboration between members of the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster and NC State, including sponsored research and project partnerships,” he says.
Sponsored research gives companies the opportunity to work with university experts to identify industry pain points and solve specific technical problems. And it frequently results in the creation of valuable intellectual property, such as products or patents, that can be leveraged by companies for a competitive advantage. NC State alone holds more than 800 U.S. patents and is responsible for commercializing more than 400 new products.
The area’s universities also support another goal of the cluster: improving workforce development. Simply put, there aren’t enough skilled workers to go around.
“These companies have all experienced having talented employees poached by other firms,” Fulghum says. “We’ve made an effort over the past couple of years to plant our flag in the ground and let people in the industry know that this is the place to come to get an education and get jobs.”
An Army infantry veteran with an MBA and experience
in energy conservation and renewable energy, Fulghum chairs the cluster’s entrepreneurship working group. He’s working to connect the region’s cleantech startup companies with strategic partners from the cluster.
Of the 39 new companies that have opened their doors in the region over the past decade, many are based on NC State research, including Tethis, which develops and markets super-absorbent biodegradable foams and powders in various water-treatment industries; Harrison Analytic Technologies, which is seeking to commercialize a novel battery management technology aimed at the electric vehicle market; and PlatiNix, which has developed a replacement catalyst for platinum in the production of hydrogen gas.
Fulghum hopes the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster can help the state sort out some of the complex policy issues facing the industry as new technologies — and new businesses — come into the market.
“This can be a delicate issue in areas with highly regulated electricity markets,” he says. “The question for North Carolina and for the region is what the policy environment will look like for companies that want to engage in the next generation of the grid.”
Small Grid, Big Business
Policy questions get at least as much attention as technical issues in the Centennial Campus offices of energy giant ABB, which belongs to both the FREEDM center consortium and the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster. The company runs the Smart Grid Center for Excellence and recently launched a new enterprise called the Microgrid Regional Execution Center.
A microgrid essentially mimics the operations of the larger grid but, as the name suggests, provides power on a smaller scale, serving a town, military base or university, for example. Microgrids can operate independently of the main grid or run parallel to it.
“Anything that produces power could potentially be a microgrid,” says Brad Luyster, vice president and general manager of the centers. “That adds a new level of reliability. If the power goes off from the main grid, the microgrid has its own generation on site.”
Reliability is the issue that keeps utility executives up at night. In fact, interest in microgrids among energy professionals rose significantly after a major blackout in the Northeast in 2003. In a white paper published in 2011, the global energy company Siemens said it envisions a time when microgrids will be connected seamlessly to the nation’s grid, providing “a solution that enhances reliability, efficiency, security, quality and sustainability for energy consumers and producers alike.”
Like Siemens, ABB sees microgrids as the key to grid modernization. The company, one of the first on Centennial Campus, is aggressively pursuing a strategy to gain technical and competitive advantages. Its centers at NC State collaborate with the FREEDM center, local utilities, and other local metering and communications companies to develop and test innovative solutions. Its microgrid technology is notable for one reason: it works.
ABB’s microgrid is designed to seamlessly integrate renewables, with their fluctuating energy profiles, and output reliable power. If the main grid goes down, its microgrid system isolates itself from the larger grid and continues to provide power to its customers. When the larger grid comes back online, the connection is reestablished.
The smart technologies built into the ABB system may open the door to connecting a higher percentage of renewables to the grid. And that’s not just wishful thinking. The technology has already been commercialized and has a solid track record of performance, mostly outside the United States.
“We’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Luyster says. “We have over 80 microgrids deployed, mostly in remote areas, in places like Antarctica, the Azores, and down under in Australia.”
Making room on the U.S. grid for solid-state transformers, smart meters, microgrids and other emerging technologies is no easy task. And the major utility companies aren’t the only ones having to adapt. From the biggest players to the smallest, the industry will be forced in the coming years to navigate an uncharted stream of risks and rewards as consumers embrace these new technologies and the marketplace evolves in response.
At the FREEDM center, the industry’s key players have a seat at the table and a chance to shape the future, wherever it leads.
The industry is at a crossroads, says Steve Kalland, a green energy professional with a master’s degree in public policy analysis. As the longtime director of NC State’s Solar Center, he’s seen the changes coming for over a decade.
“If you asked somebody 10 years ago to define cleantech, you would have gotten a lot of mystified looks,” he says. “If you asked them five years ago, you would have gotten 20 different answers. Today, the consensus is better defined.”
As the sector matures, its innovations are being embraced by larger companies with deeper pockets and more influence in the market, Kalland adds.
“It used to be us versus them, solar versus the utilities,” he says. “Now we’re working together to take these technologies and integrate them into the system.”
If there are clear winners in these uncertain times, it’s undoubtedly the students gaining real-world experience through the research, education, training and internship opportunities created by the FREEDM center and its many industry partners.
The center, which recently added a professional master’s degree program in smart grid management, is educating the generation of engineers, scientists and business leaders who will map the world’s clean energy future, turning research discoveries into practical realities. In an industry facing an aging workforce, the influx of job-ready, high-skill workers can’t come too soon.
“Our students are very, very highly employable,” says Huang. “Our students are all gone, as soon as they get their degrees. I haven’t heard of anybody who doesn’t have a job.”
Considering how much work lies ahead, that may be the FREEDM center’s most important achievement.