Cornell-led report on electric grid helps spark NSF

By: Tom Fleischman,  Cornell Chronicle
December 9, 2016

Nearly three years ago, John M. Guckenheimer, the Abram R. Bullis Professor in Mathematics, was picked to co-chair a National Research Council committee charged with coming up with theoretical solutions to a real-life problem: the future of the electric grid.

The Committee on Analytical Research Foundations for the Next-Generation Electric Grid spent nearly two years on the project. The result was a 160-page report, “Analytic Research Foundations for the Next-Generation Electric Grid,” published last spring.

Another result – a joint National Science Foundation/U.S. Department of Energy program announced Nov. 15, to further investigate the issue – has taken Guckenheimer by surprise.

“I made a presentation to the Department of Energy Advisory Committee in June,” said Guckenheimer, who is retiring at the end of this semester after 31 years at Cornell. “The NSF and DOE signed a memorandum at that time, saying they were going to cooperate with each other. And I’m blown away that they’ve actually done it.”

The program, “Algorithms for Modern Power Systems (AMPS),” is accepting proposals through Feb. 13, 2017, for research projects that will develop the next generation of algorithms to improve the security, reliability and efficiency of the modern power grid. The program is likely to include between four and 10 participants, with anticipated total funding of $1.2 million.

A NSF spokesperson confirmed a “direct connection” between the report co-authored by Guckenheimer and the new program.

Guckenheimer said that while spurring action to address a critical need was always the committee’s goal, the speed with which that action has been taken is unprecedented.

“Clearly they were talking about this before we were totally done,” he said, “and to actually have them put out a program announcement just six months later, I’m just blown away by that.”

The committee, which Guckenheimer co-chaired with Thomas Overbye, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, came up with a list of 12 recommendations the Department of Energy should consider in making critical improvements to the electric grid. Most are related to access of energy usage information for scientific analysis, support of further research, and inclusion of academic and industry researchers in the continuing quest for a next-generation grid.

Its final recommendation: establishment of a National Electric Power Systems Research Center, to act as an interface between the power industry, government and universities in developing new computational and mathematical solutions for data and modeling issues, and in sharing data.

The report doesn’t address specific scenarios or threats to the current electric grid, Guckenheimer said.

“The goal here is to develop the theoretical, algorithmic, intellectual infrastructure that will enable this sort of change to happen in a more effective way than it otherwise would,” he said.

Guckenheimer likes to compare the current electric grid with telecommunications technology of 30 or 40 years ago. Digital phones and the internet have so transformed the industry, “at this point, you could just turn it off [the old phone system] and throw it away, and people would hardly notice,” he said.

He doesn’t see the same fate for the current electric grid, in part because of the long-term investments in current facilities and technologies. But it’s arguably modern society’s most complex and important critical infrastructure, and it is changing rapidly for several reasons, he says:

  • Rapid growth in renewable energy, particularly wind turbines and solar cells;
  • “Smart grids” with two-way communication between customers and power producers;
  • Phasor measurement units (PMUs), which provide rapid and detailed information about the state of the grid. PMUs have been installed over the last decade, and provide a wealth of real-time information that can be used to optimize the grid’s performance;
  • Development of cost effective energy storage devices such as new types of batteries.

The secure handling of PMU-generated data would be the job of the National Electric Power Systems Research Center, according to the committee’s report.

Guckenheimer, whose field is dynamical systems theory, said he thought the NSF and DOE understood the urgency regarding an infrastructure that’s based in large part on 1950s technology.

“There was a realization that things were changing rapidly enough that the kind of technology that the power systems/engineering community was going to be able to bring to bear on keeping up with those changes really needed to be enhanced,” he said. “There was a very definite, urgent need for mathematicians to develop new algorithms, new theory to address this problem.

“Our committee was certainly oriented to making this happen,” he added, “so it makes me feel good.”

This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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