• A fountain with water shooting upward

      Historic Pasadena Water and Power fountain (Photo – W.K.)

      Caltech’s hometown of Pasadena is a convenient laboratory for the Institute’s smart-grid researchers.

      Pasadena has promoted the use of solar panels and EVs, providing a real-world, real-time example of the challenges that come with incorporating renewables into a conventional grid. Caltech is working with Pasadena Water and Power on a project to strategically install and program batteries that could store solar and wind energy for use when energy supply is low.

      California’s energy grid, an engineering marvel 150 years ago, is due for a makeover. Now, thanks to an interdisciplinary group of researchers, Caltech is working to transform energy systems by developing a “smart grid”: a flexible, responsive, efficient, system that incorporates renewable energy sources while meeting growing power demands.

      A crucial step in that transition is restructuring the power grid, the complicated network of hardware and software that brings electricity to our doorsteps. With support from public and private partners, Caltech engineers, economists, mathematicians, and computer scientists are devising and testing the underpinnings of tomorrow’s grid. Their advancements include everything from the creation of intuitive algorithms and hardware that ensure that electrical vehicle (EV) charging stations draw power when it is cheap and abundant to the establishment of new economic structures that prevent market players from manipulating energy prices.

      Yesterday’s Electrical Grid

      The conventional grid was designed to distribute a steady and predictable flow of electricity created by burning fossil fuels on demand. Renewable power from wind and solar fluctuate depending on weather and are difficult to predict. Without long-term, large energy storage, this can result in an imbalance between the amount of electricity produced and the amount needed at any given time.

      Caltech Smart Grid Solutions

      Caltech researchers have developed mathematical tools that determine when to use and when to conserve power based on the energy available on the grid. These tools solve the problem of how to stabilize voltages on the grid even when energy from renewable sources fluctuates. This new approach can be applied to the distribution networks that take power from larger substations and deliver it to houses, buildings, streetlights, and other energy consumers in a region.

      With a smart scheduling-enabled grid, you could signal to your dishwasher whether you need dishes right away, or if the job could wait a few hours until the grid is less stressed. The enormous data centers run by Google, Amazon, and other companies could initiate energy-intensive activities, such as the archiving of data, only when solar and wind energy are available.

      Caltech already has launched a solution aimed at a significant consumer of energy: Electric Vehicles, EVs. Steven Low, Frank J. Gilloon Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences and Electrical Engineering, former Caltech graduate student George Lee, and former Resnick Sustainability Institute Graduate Research Fellow Zachary Lee invented the Adaptive Charging Network, a smartphone-enabled platform that parking garages can use to maximize the efficiency of EV charging stations. For example, one person may leave their EV parked for a full workday but need relatively little energy to top off the battery. That person could wait until late in the day, when energy is more available and cheaper, to charge. Another individual, who needs to charge before driving to a lunchtime meeting, could begin to receive electricity immediately. This technology, licensed through a company called PowerFlex, is now operating in Caltech’s parking structures in Pasadena and is being deployed nationwide.

      But smart scheduling alone is not enough. A grid that runs on renewable energy also requires a major overhaul in how the grid is managed and regulated.

      Today’s system uses markets that predict customer electricity demand a day ahead of time, which allows power plants to generate and sell enough power to meet that demand. This market structure doesn’t work when fluctuating renewables come into play. Caltech researchers, like Adam Wierman, professor of computing and mathematical sciences, are doing theoretical work looking at the smart grid and the network of markets it will produce.

      Read the full article (including more innovative solutions) on Caltech’s website.


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