October 13, 2011

Cornell Researchers Explore Smart Grid Technology

Print More

In an effort to combat energy waste nationwide, the National Science Foundation gave a team of four Cornell faculty members a four-year, $1.9 million grant to research how to improve energy allocation through a “smart” electrical grid.One of the researchers’ goals is to develop software to incorporate cloud computing into the smart grid, creating a system in which all information on electricity demand and production is placed in an external storage hub rather than local and individual networks. The professors said they are hoping that the new method of computing will better optimize the way energy is produced and allocated.According to principal investigator Prof. Lang Tong, electrical and computer engineering, cloud computing would help reduce costs and create better interaction and information exchange between those who consume energy and those who generate it.In the current system, energy must be used immediately after being generated, so any unused energy is put to waste. However, in the prospective system, that energy could instead be placed in an inventory and used when needed at a later time.“There’s a lot of potential in incorporating demand,” said Prof. Tim Mount, applied economics and management, a researcher on the project. “Some power plants are only used less than 10 percent of the time … If you could manage demand to be more accommodating to system conditions, you could make conventional generators run consistently. In a way, you’re spreading the capital costs over a lot more hours, which brings the cost down.”Mount cited electric vehicle batteries as an example of how power in the current system can be better utilized. With a battery, consumers can plug in and charge their electric vehicles overnight. Since the vehicles would be charging at a time when electricity is not generally used, the cost would go down, as well as the amount of time that the power plants are idle.In addition to the economic aspect of the smart grid, the project is also being analyzed from other angles and disciplines, such as computer science and power systems.“Involving the consumer in the decision about the cost and the reliability and the type of electric products being consumed is a very different paradigm,” said Prof. Bob Thomas, electrical and computer engineering, another researcher on the project. “It requires lots of communication, it requires lots of economic contracts, it requires an engineering of technical devices that actually allow you to do all this.”According to Prof. Ken Birman, computer science, a researcher on the project, the use of cloud computing in his field raises numerous issues that the researchers hope to explore and resolve. For example, he said that with the new power grid, homes could be more susceptible to burglaries if burglars could access information on power usage of the individual house, enabling them to determine whether residents are home.“A lot of these are problems that nobody has thought about, but not necessarily problems that can’t be solved,” Birman said. “Our belief is that we should do that research and if we’re lucky, we’ll answer these questions with good answers, and companies that build things like Android would pick up the solutions and maybe build even better ones. And just like that, the cloud will start to be a place where we can do these kinds of things safely.”The Cornell professors will be working alongside professors from Georgia State University and the University of California, Berkeley, as well as graduate students from each school.“It’s exciting to work with people from very different disciplines,” Tong said. “You get the chance to learn from them very different angles in attacking problems.”The research team has high hopes for the future of Cornell in accordance with their smart grid project.“Cornell wants to be a leader in this area, so it’s important for us to get out there and begin to have a real impact,” Birman said.“This is the next frontier,” Thomas said. “This is where things are headed so it’s hard not to be interested. It’s just a great time to be working on this project.”

Original Author: Kaitlyn Kwan