Charging ahead

Created on: May 11, 2012

As lawmakers around the country and world grapple with energy policy and decisions, the College of Technology is preparing its students for a utility landscape that could be much different than today’s. With new courses, new partnerships and new ways of addressing increased demands (for electricity and for conservation), the college is focusing on ways to impact the energy sector on several fronts.

We’re Plugged In

As you drive home from work, your electric car communicates with the smart meter on your house, warning it that it will need to be plugged in to charge in a few minutes. The smart meter makes adjustments to other areas of the house so that the electricity load doesn’t fluctuate when the garage door opens and the car starts charging.

Later in the evening, when peak electricity load times have passed, the excess power in the car battery can then be sold back to the electric utility.

This two-way communication and flow of electricity is at the heart of smart grid technology, which is increasingly seen as the future of the electricity use and distribution.

The College of Technology has moved quickly to help students and industry partners prepare for these advancements. Proposed changes will affect the way electricity is generated, distributed, used, paid for and conserved. And while the smart grid is driving much of the conversation, it is only one part of a complicated network that stretches from electricity generators to consumers. The general consensus is that the way we generate and use electricity in the next 20-50 years will be vastly different from what we are used to.

Educating smart grid workers

Eric Dietz, associate professor of computer and information technology, is the co-principal investigator for Crossroads Smart Grid Training Program, a multi-year grant from the Department of Energy. Purdue has partnered with Ivy Tech Community College to develop courses to help train a smart grid work force.

Eight Technology faculty from four departments are participating in the program along with professors from the College of Engineering and Krannert School of Management. The new or revamped classes focus on an introduction to the smart grid, security and infrastructure, educating building contractors about smart grid technologies and wind energy systems. The first course in the new smart grid curriculum was offered in Fall 2011.

The smart grid grant is a natural extension of Dietz’s work, as part of the Purdue Homeland Security Institute, on the $6 million Indiana Advanced Electric Vehicle Training and Education Consortium (I-AEVTEC). That grant was created to educate and train the workforce needed to design, manufacture and maintain advanced electric vehicles. Smart grid technologies are a major factor in keeping electric vehicles charged.

In addition to courses for undergraduates, the Crossroads program is charged with creating certificate programs for students and current professionals. The programs would include one for smart grid, one for electric vehicles, and one for heavy-hybrid vehicles. Organizers foresee the need for coordination and possible overlap among the certificates.

Changing public perceptions

 

The physical infrastructure is but one of many parts of the smart grid. Another part involves digital communication between utilities and consumers that will help monitor and adjust electricity usage. Changing the habits of consumers may be a more challenging task than building the network.

“How do you present data and communicate to people to help them make informed choices,” asks Kenneth Burbank, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology. “They do it when they’re going to the store, they’re starting to do it medically. But they aren’t used to walking up to their thermostat and making decisions. You need a system and metrics that mean something to people.”

Athula Kulatunga, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering technology, has been working on this challenge with his recently created Smart Meter Integration Laboratory. Public tours of the lab highlight potential cost savings depending on electricity loads and time of use. Burbank believes this is the first step in helping individual electricity customers become better energy conservationists.

“Put us in with the networking and graphics guys, and we ought to be able to solve that problem,” he said. “Get data on consumption, analyze it, get it back to the consumer in a form they can understand — that is the application of technology combined with the knowledge of how people learn, two things we excel at in this college.”

Another area where Technology curriculum affects electricity consumption is usage and control of electricity. Because electricity is used in nearly every aspect of our lives, it pays to make sure all devices use it efficiently. Governmental regulations make product innovation much easier to pursue in the classroom than overhauling power plants, Burbank said.

“Most of our energy conservation measures are on the output sides. How do we make more energy efficient televisions? How do we make batteries last longer? Not a lot of work gets done on how to make a coal power plant more efficient,” he said.

The grander scale

Just like Purdue, universities around the world are developing new technologies to address global energy needs. Through faculty and industry partnerships, they are seeking innovation on several fronts: electricity generation and distribution, smart metering and smart grids, renewable energy sources and sustainability. Deploying these innovations has come slowly, however, because of numerous roadblocks.

Through projects such as the Solar Decathlon Competition — in which Purdue earned second place last fall — and the recently launched EcoCAR 2 project, students are finding themselves working hand-in-hand with industry leaders to develop and effectively use the technologies that will shape the future of the electricity industry.

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