University, industry collaborate at GRAPES center
There is no question that the electric power industry is critical to the economy and security of the country. Without electric power, everything stops.
At the University of South Carolina, a collaborative research center for the GRid-Connected Advanced Power Electronic Systems (GRAPES) brings together industry representatives and university researchers to help predict and control the way power is generated, distributed and used. The goal is to improve the robustness of the power grid – a system that is threatened by aging equipment, terrorism and the lack of integration between generation, transmission, distribution and utilization.
“The demand for electrical energy is increasing and political and environmental pressures are forcing adoption of new power generation resources, such as wind, solar and tidal, that do not fit well into the traditional architecture of the electric power grid. As a result, our ability to control the grid will rapidly erode without substantial changes and standardization of the control mechanisms embedded in the system’s power electronics,” said Dr. Roger Dougal, professor of electrical engineering and director of USC’s GRAPES center. “The potential adverse economic and security effects of this erosion are enormous.”
GRAPES researchers are working to speed the standardization, adoption and insertion of power electronics into the electric grid to improve the system’s stability, flexibility, robustness and economy. The goal involves developing new technologies, software and tools to advance power electronic systems. The center also works to educate engineers about power electronic technologies.
“The center is designed to generate ideas for making these improvements and to transition those ideas to the market,” Dougal said.
GRAPES began in 2009 as a partnership between USC and the University of Arkansas. It receives funding from industry members and the National Science Foundation. It promotes collaboration between higher education and industry by pulling together researchers, utility companies, defense contractors, equipment manufacturers and component suppliers.
Research under way looks at how to incorporate “green” power sources into the power grid. For example, researchers are working on a project to help both homeowners who want to add wind or solar power generators to their homes and the utility companies who want to reduce power usage during times of high demand. The device being designed at GRAPES ties these power sources and storage batteries to the home’s power grid.
“It will manage the use of power from each of the sources throughout the day to minimize the energy cost – storing power when power is cheap, and supplying power when the price is high,” Dougal said. “While homeowners are not yet faced with time-of-use billing, it is only a matter of time before they will see it and realize cost savings from this sort of system.”
The 15 industry members of GRAPES are able to work together to learn from, and contribute to, the center’s research. Industry members are able to pool their research money with that of other members to achieve research results that would be too costly for one company alone; get access to “pre-release” results from the research; network with other industry members facing similar problems; influence the direction of the research; recruit future employees from student researchers; and transfer technology more quickly from the lab to the workplace.
By collaborating with industry, USC researchers are able to learn which problems are especially vexing to the power industry, ensuring the research is “relevant beyond the academic domain,” Dougal said. USC students benefit by performing industry-relevant research and by interacting with potential employers.
“The visibility the center provides will enhance our ability to recruit top faculty and students,” Dougal said.