Multi-state collaboration to develop testing ground for sustainable power grids

Appalachian Regional Commission to fund the team — including Penn State researchers — to test and deploy ‘virtual safe space’ for rural electric cooperatives and utilities to test smart grid possibilities
illustration of a smart grid

The multi-institution collaboration, including Penn State researchers, aims to develop modeling software that enables utility companies in rural Appalachia to test how incorporating more sustainable energy sources will impact their power grids.

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MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Smart grids have the potential to revolutionize and revitalize energy supplies in rural communities, according to Penn State researchers. The power systems can incorporate sustainable energy systems like wind power, adjust to demands on the fly and evolve to incorporate emerging technologies such as electric vehicle charging stations, but companies may be hesitant to implement them due to potential cost or unknown ramifications. With the goal of alleviating those uncertainties, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has provided a multi-state collaboration with $10 million to develop and deploy services that enable electric utility companies and energy tech startups to model and test different scenarios before implementation.

Tennessee Tech University is leading the three-year project across Appalachia, with partners in Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Tennessee. Multiple partners and industry stakeholders are matching the ARC grant, resulting in more than $20 million in total funding for the project. ARC is a federal-state partnership that works to develop sustainable economic opportunities in the region. The Penn State team, with $750,000 from the ARC grant and additional support from the University, will focus on bolstering the resilience of Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative Inc.’s power grid, which provides electricity to almost 20,000 people across 5,000 square miles, including in Tioga, Potter, Bradford, Lycoming, McKean, Cameron and Clinton counties.

“This initiative to expand smart grid modeling services to more electric cooperatives and utilities is instrumental in ensuring that the power grid can adapt to the evolving energy landscape, where renewable sources play an increasingly vital role in our energy future,” said Peter B. Idowu, professor of electrical engineering at Penn State Harrisburg and principal investigator on Penn State’s contributions to the project. “This will enable electric energy delivery and service units to evaluate technologies and determine the impact of distributed energy resources as they generate, store or consume electricity when integrated with modernized electric grids.”

Each collaborator will focus on a different aspect of the modeling services, from battery use and sustainable resources to grid resiliency and mitigating storm damage. The HILLTOP+ microgrid simulation platform, originally prototyped by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory, will serve as a virtual "safe space." Rural electric utilities will be able to model and test different scenarios to gain confidence in deploying smart grid technologies, according to the researchers.

“We know that Appalachia regions are often left behind in advanced technologies in several ways,” Idowu said. “These areas are remote and generally small without the resources needed to adapt smart grids — especially if they don’t know how they will work in their specific network.”

With the processing power and speed of HILLTOP+, Idowu said that the researchers will be able to model scenarios as close to real as possible. If a storm topples a tree on powerlines in Potter County, for example, the team can assess — to millionths of a second — what issues that may cause downstream and how to best mitigate the power loss through alternative sources.

“We’re providing the framework for regional utilities to develop their grid,” Idowu said, noting that the team will work closely with Tri-County to understand what specific challenges they face in providing accessible, affordable energy to their customers. “They tell us what matters to them, and we’re helping them understand what their network could look like — what happens if they put a charging station in one spot over another? If they incorporate windmills? They can start to assess their situation and see what their best grid will look like before making decisions and committing the resources.”

The researchers said energy tech startups will also benefit from HILLTOP+ grid modeling services, as it will enable them to develop and virtually test their smart grid hardware and software products for scalability and interoperability. 

“The current project is a second phase of a project that started a few years ago as a partnership between MIT Lincoln Laboratory and Tennessee Tech,” said Vahid Motevalli, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs at Penn State Harrisburg. “Inviting Penn State to participate in the second phase of this project is a testimony to the electric power laboratory and expertise at Penn State Harrisburg and the extensive collaborative contribution of our research group across three campuses of Penn State.”

The Penn State team includes co-principal investigators Habib Ullah, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Penn State Harrisburg; Nilanjan Ray Chaudhuri, associate professor of electrical engineering in the Penn State College of Engineering, University Park; Yunting Liu, assistant professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering, University Park; and Mohammad Rasouli, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Penn State Behrend.

"This multi-campus project is an excellent illustration of how Penn State, through the sharing of research and faculty expertise, makes a positive impact on communities within Pennsylvania and well beyond,” said Sherri Kermanshachi, associate vice chancellor for research at Penn State Harrisburg.

ARC's funding for the program was made available through its Appalachian Regional Initiative for Stronger Economies (ARISE), which fosters regional economic transformation through multi-state collaboration. Additional information about ARC’s ARISE funding opportunity for multi-state collaboration is available here.