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Crashing waves, whipping wind, and buckling ground can play havoc with the energy grid, which means one of the first things to break down in a natural disaster is often the power supply.

Researchers in UT’s College of Engineering are spearheading a novel approach to help keep the lights on.

Fred WangProfessor and Condra Chair of Excellence in Power Electronics Fred Wang leads a team working on microgrids, systems that can operate independently of the overall power grid when the situation arises.

“In Hurricane Sandy, for example, millions of customers were without electricity for weeks, leading to billions of dollars worth of economic losses,” said Wang, who holds a joint appointment with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Microgrids, which would generate power by drawing on solar and energy storage, would have made appreciable differences in how that disaster affected people’s lives.”

The team includes Min H. Kao Professor and Department Head of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Leon Tolbert and Governor’s Chair for Power Electronics and Deputy Director of CURENT (the Center for Ultra-Wide-Area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks) Yilu Liu.

Industry partners, include high-profile power-related East-Tennessee companies TVA, Chattanooga Electric Power Board, and Electric Power Research Institute, as well as commercial vendors National Instruments and Green Energy Corporation.

One of the key concepts involving microgrids is that of distributed energy resources (DERs). While current energy needs are met via power plants that must transmit their power many miles to where it is needed, DERs refer to power generated or stored locally.

Reducing or eliminating the need to produce power at locations far away from where it is needed also reduces the chance of transmission and distribution lines being knocked out of service. In many cases, microgrids are also a cleaner solution because they involve renewable energy resources like photovoltaic solar power.

While holding much promise for a secure energy grid in the future, microgrids can come with a hefty startup cost.

“With microgrids you have to consider added switches, communications, energy storage, and backup generators, and the added cost of those prevents their widespread use currently,” said Wang, who also serves as technical director of CURENT. “Our proposal would avoid some of those costs by utilizing existing intelligent switches and fast communication links in smart grids, improving the economic benefits and reliability of the system, and by using open source software and general purpose hardware to reduce controller and deployment cost.”

The idea has drawn the attention of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), which awarded Wang’s team a $2.4 million grant to develop a controller for microgrids and the controllers that govern them.



David Goddard (865-974-0683,