Modeling a better energy system

AMES, Iowa -- America's energy is constantly moving, constantly bought and sold, constantly subject to human decisions, constantly vulnerable to storms and other disruptions.

Can that energy system be more efficient? Where can the infrastructure be improved? How can the system be safer for the environment? What happens when a hurricane disrupts production? And what about the people who work within the energy system? How do they make their decisions? What factors influence them? Are they willing to try new ideas to improve efficiencies?

Iowa State University researchers are building computer models to answer those questions. The project started in September and is supported by a three-year grant of $608,000 from the National Science Foundation.

James McCalley, an Iowa State professor of electrical and computer engineering, has been working on research related to the modeling project for about 2 years. He's building a computer model of the U.S. energy system that reflects the connections among the electric, coal, natural gas and hydroelectric energy subsystems. The model will include data about the system's production, capacity and transportation infrastructure. The study will also include data collected from parts of the energy system hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Other project researchers are studying the economic and sociological aspects of the energy system. And others are working out the challenges of modeling all the variables and uncertainty in such a complex system.

McCalley, who has worked for the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in San Francisco, said he's asked for years whether the country has found the best way to move its energy around. He said the answer always came back, "The market knows."

He's hoping such big-picture models will come up with a better answer.

He said the models should be able to predict energy prices and availability one to two years out. They should be able to search for weaknesses in the energy system. And they should be able to suggest better combinations of energy movements.

The modeling project also includes these researchers and their studies:

  • Steve Sapp, a professor of sociology, said the project will contribute to the understanding of organizational sociology. He's studying how people in different parts of the energy system interact with each other. He's studying the factors that influence bids to buy and sell energy. He's studying how deregulation has impacted innovation in energy industries. And he's studying how ownership patterns within the system can affect the system's efficiency.
  • Leigh Tesfatsion, an Iowa State professor of economics, has been working for the past few years to study the efficiency and reliability of a proposed national energy market reform called the Wholesale Power Market Platform. The Midwest Independent System Operator -- which includes parts of Iowa, 14 other Midwest states and Manitoba -- adopted a version of the new power platform in April. Tesfatsion's study will rely on case studies of two regional energy markets for guidance, the Midwest system and the New England Independent System Operator. Her energy framework includes models of how people within the energy system make decisions and react to reforms. Tesfatsion and McCalley will work to bring their two models together.
  • Sarah Ryan, an Iowa State associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, is studying how uncertainties in the energy system can be included in the model. She'll look at supply, demand and pricing scenarios, assign probabilities and search for energy flows that will work in a variety of likely conditions. The result will be a model that better reflects daily energy decisions and the uncertainty around them.
  • McCalley said he expects building and testing the models to take the next year to 18 months. Once the project's models are ready, the researchers plan to make them available to other researchers as a way to aid and encourage more study of the country's energy system.

    But there's a lot of research to do before the models are ready.

    "This is truly the most challenging project I've ever attempted," Tesfatsion said.

    And when the modeling is done, McCalley is convinced it will have answers to a big question he's been asking about America's energy system: "Can anybody say we're doing it the best way?"