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Thu November 22, 2012
Technology

IBM grant recognizes Clarkson smart grid researcher

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced New York would invest $250 million to develop smart grid technologies to modernize the state's energy grid. At Clarkson University, the highly regarded science and engineering school in St. Lawrence County, a professor working on smart energy grid systems was just awarded a grant by IBM. The $10,000 prize will help him continue his research, and develop coursework for students to train the next generation to use this hot technology.

A smart grid is an energy system that uses information technology to increase efficiency, sustainability and reliability. A big reason experts say the electrical grid needs to get smarter is to incorporate energy from renewable sources like the wind and sun.

And that's where professor Lei Wu's work comes in. He creates complex mathematical models that, among other things, help the power grid handle the uncertainty involved in using renewable energy.

Why Smart Grids?

"The renewable generation depends on the weather, depends on the location; however, we have to supply the electricity to end users second to second. So how to balance the generation with the demands, when the generation itself is uncertain -- so that's kind of the difficulty here," Wu said.

Wu's colleague Stephen Bird is an assistant professor of political science at Clarkson. His work deals with environmental and energy policy.

"Part of what Professor Wu's work is going to do is actually focus on helping the grid operators use all of that nice, clean electricity -- and often, by the way, cheaper electricity -- but make sure that our grid is still reliable," Bird said. "'Cause we don't want the wires to shut off just because the wind stopped blowing."

What's in it for grid operators?

Wu says that sophisticated modeling is meant to help grid operators achieve several goals.

"In general, in the smart grid, we try to make sure that customers can be supplied by electricity 100 percent of the time, and as cheap as possible and as environmentally friendly as possible," he said.

In practice, that would mean controlling the grid so that it uses renewable energy sources as its first choice, and relies on traditional sources as a backup when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing.

Smart grid technology will soon mean a new world for consumers, too, who will have a lot more information and control when it comes to their electricity use. As an example, Bird says, you'll be able to program your clothes drier to run at 2 a.m. when power is cheaper and the grid is at low demand.

"There's going to be all sorts of ways in which we can potentially save ourselves money, do better things for the environment, and actually make our living a little bit more easy," he said.

Why is IBM interested?

John Kelly is IBM's senior vice president, says that IBM is interested in Wu's work because the company develops software that does similar modeling of complex systems. Some of its researchers are already working with Wu.

"So what we've done is, in addition to the cash award, we've made available to him free of charge our critical software, so that he can build upon that in his coursework and with his students and in his research," Kelly said.

Back at Clarkson, Bird says those new courses Wu will be developing fit in with a larger vision at the university.

"It really represents, I think, a huge focus that we've been working on, thinking about energy and sustainability and economic development, all at once here at Clarkson, in a very interdisciplinary way. And so that's been really exciting for us here at Clarkson," Bird said.

Bird says Wu's new smart grid curriculum will give students a boost into a growing field that needs new experts.

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