Virginia Tech Researchers to Modernize U.S. Electrical Grid With Support From Department of Energy

Picture this: It’s a warm summer evening and you’re outside enjoying the view from your backyard when suddenly, off in the distance, you see dark storm clouds rolling in. You’ve experienced dozens of storms over your lifetime and know exactly what to do. You head inside, light some candles, and grab a flashlight.

According to a November 2021 report published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 2020 was a record-breaking year for power outages. On average, a person living in the United States went more than eight hours without electricity that year. That’s more than double the amount of time the average American went without power in 2013, the year that the EIA started tracking that information.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? According to Christina DiMarino, an assistant professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, it doesn’t, and power outages in the U.S. shouldn’t be that common.

To address these concerns, DiMarino is leading a team that recently received $2.9 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to tackle power grid sustainability, innovative approaches to power conversion, and related technologies.

“The power grid technology in the United States is more than 100 years old. Because of this outdated grid technology, it’s more susceptible to power outages – especially as we experience more and more extreme weather,” said DiMarino. “When you add in the increased penetration of renewable energy sources and charging capabilities, it’s putting significant demand on our grid, which it was not originally designed to fulfill.”

The DOE recognizes that while the power grid in the U.S. has been supporting the electrical needs of our country for a very long time, improvements are necessary to create a more efficient and advanced system in the future. In an effort to improve these technologies, the DOE and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy created the OPEN 2021 Program.

DiMarino’s team submitted a proposal for a new solution called SCALED, or Substation in a Cable for Adaptable, Low-cost Electrical Distribution. While that may sound like a mouthful, simply put, the team is looking to create a more streamlined structure that combines the functionality of power electronics and the power density benefits of high-voltage cables to replace bulky power substations in the electrical grid we use today.

This new, more compact design could eliminate the need for large and expensive power substations and enable simple integration of renewable energy sources, electric vehicle fast-charging infrastructure, energy storage, and efficient direct current distribution lines.

DiMarino said SCALED’s innovative design could put the U.S. back on track for leading the way in energy-efficient grid technology. Her team hopes to make SCALED adaptable for the future by making it bidirectional so power can flow in both directions.

“By carefully controlling and routing the power flow, it’s essentially going to be like an energy internet. So we’re creating the type of infrastructure that will allow power to go where it needs to go, in the form that it needs to be in, when it needs to be there,” said DiMarino, who also serves as assistant director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Power Electronics Systems.

This enhanced grid technology will apply to all forms of energy – wind, solar, electric, and “whatever else may come,” she said.

These improvements would also allow “faults” to be isolated. For example, if a tree goes down during a storm, the smart grid would limit outages to a smaller area of homes as opposed to rippling across several neighborhoods in a town.

In addition to Virginia Tech electrical and computer engineering faculty Khai Ngo, Guo-Quan “G.Q.” Lu, and Yuhao Zhang serving as co-principal investigators on the project, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Connecticut are also serving as partners to further enhance the research findings.

Lu, whose research specializes in electronic packaging of microelectronics and power electronics, said the importance of this project and its potential to revolutionize how electrical energy is converted in the power grid.

“In our daily lives, we take electricity for granted and expect it to be there whenever we need it,” said Lu. “In reality, most of the electricity we use is generated at faraway locations, like at a nuclear power plant, a coal burning plant, solar farm, or wind farm. The generated electricity has to travel a long distance and goes through multiple complex conversion stages before ending up at our wall outlets for charging our computers or cellphones.”

The team’s work will focus specifically on the conversion stage that takes place at various power substations located in city blocks. The success of the project would considerably shrink the size of those substations, if not completely eliminate them. It would also make the grid smarter and reduce its outage frequency.

Lu’s role in the project is to develop a magnetic material that will be wrapped around thick electrical cables to help with the conversion of electrical energy. This step is crucial because other members of the team will be relying on the induction of that magnetic material to create a smooth energy conversion process as they “turn the current flow on and off.”

The research will take place at both the university’s Blacksburg campus and the Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington.

The team’s novel research answers a call for proposals that prioritize funding for high-impact, high-risk technologies that support innovative approaches to clean energy challenges.

In support of these new clean energy technologies, the DOE announced that it would be giving $175 million for 68 research and development projects “aimed at developing disruptive technologies to strengthen the nation’s advanced energy enterprise.” DiMarino’s SCALED was one of the 68 projects selected.

The team will spend the next three years working to make SCALED a reality. Although it will take substantial time to develop a working prototype, DiMarino stressed how important these advancements are to the U.S. power grid.

“I’m glad the U.S. government is talking about infrastructure,” she said. “Other countries are making large strides in the incorporation of renewable energy sources and the development of new grid technologies. China, for example, has made large investments into its grid because it is continuously expanding. As a result, they’ve been able to try out new technologies.”

DiMarino said it is time for the U.S. to catch up, and such work on grid infrastructure has the potential to lead in terms of innovation.

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