Iowa State engineer developing tools, technologies to make a better, smarter power grid

A figure showing part of Zhaoyu Wang's work to develop a tool for optimal dispatch of crews

This figure shows part of Zhaoyu Wang's work to develop a tool that helps utility companies determine the best way to dispatch crews to repair multiple outages. Larger image. Image provided by Zhaoyu Wang.

AMES, Iowa – In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew earlier this month, NASA released satellite images showing long, dark swaths along the Atlantic coasts of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.

Some 2 million homes and businesses lost power in the storm. A low-tech and decades-old power grid never had a chance.

“It’s really a ‘dumb’ system,” said Zhaoyu Wang, an Iowa State University assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Wang and other engineers are working to change that. They’re looking for ways to modernize the distribution system that brings power to our homes and offices. They’re out to make a more reliable power grid for all of us. They want to build a smart grid.

“The main purpose of grid modernization is to build an efficient and resilient power grid for the future development of our economy,” Wang said.

Wang is now working on four projects that could help build a better grid:

  1. Developing a tool that will help utility companies recover from natural disasters, supported as part of a three-year, $1.95 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium. The project is led by Jianhui Wang of Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. Iowa State’s Wang is working to produce a software tool that will help utilities quickly locate outages and efficiently dispatch crews to make repairs. The software will incorporate information from new grid monitoring devices and actual data from utility companies. Other new technologies – such as micro grids that generate and store power for individual neighborhoods and automatic switches that can find open lines when some lines go down – can also help keep the electricity flowing. “We know our power system is vulnerable to extreme weather,” he said. “In extreme weather events there are maybe hundreds of outages that have to be repaired and we need to send out crews in the optimal way.” Wang said the goal is to reduce the length of extreme-weather outages by half. In the case of a hurricane, he said that means power would be restored in days instead of weeks.
  1. Developing a practical model for planning and predicting power demand down to the level of homes and businesses, supported as part of a three-year, $2.7 million grant from the energy department’s Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium. The project is also led by Argonne’s Jianhui Wang. “The objective of this project is to build local models,” said Iowa State’s Wang. “Each customer is part of the local grid. Each computer, for example, is a component of the local grid. And local is hard to model. It’s highly stochastic – it’s affected by many factors, including the weather.” Without a way to make good local models, Wang said utilities can’t accurately analyze, predict and control their power systems. The models now being used are decades old and based on outdated information. They, for example, don’t account for solar or wind power. New technology allows for more monitoring, more data and much better models. The updated local models will be integrated into commercially available software tools.
  1. Developing models to monitor and mitigate cascading power outages, supported by a three-year, $348,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The project is led by Iowa State’s Wang. The project will use big-data techniques to mine existing utility data to look for patterns in cascading outages, identify high-risk conditions for them and target mitigation efforts to those conditions.
  1. Developing an advanced business model that manages the risks and uncertainties of the power system, supported by a three-year, $345,000 grant from the energy department’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. The project is led by Iowa State’s Wang. Wang said he’ll investigate how new ideas for service contracts can provide more flexibility and less risk to power-system operations – all without relying on conservative plans for worst-case scenarios.

Wang said the projects are also supported by cost-share funding from Iowa State, the College of Engineering, the department of electrical and computer engineering and the Iowa Energy Center.

Wang credited several colleagues for their support and collaboration on the projects – James McCalley, an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering and Jack London Chair in Power Systems Engineering; Anne Kimber, executive director of Iowa State’s Electric Power Research Center; Ian Dobson, the Arend J. and Verna V. Sandbulte Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Venkataramana Ajjarapu, the David C. Nicholas Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The four grid projects will support the work of eight doctoral students and one postdoctoral researcher. Wang said all the research has a common goal that can be appreciated by anybody riding out a storm:

“We’re always trying our best to do one thing – enhance the power grid. We want to make it more secure, reliable and resilient. We’re trying to build a power grid that is modern, flexible and highly efficient.”