Students win GE Smart Grid challenge

An award ceremony was held this Sept. 16 for 12 Tech students involved in GE Energy Service’s Smart Grid Challenge Program. A yearlong endeavor, it is a project for students of all levels of experience to apply their knowledge in solving a major real-world problem: improving America’s energy grid system.

A smart grid is an energy grid that provides electricity to consumers using digital technology. This includes two-way communication systems that control appliances in the consumers’ homes to help save energy and thus, increase efficiency. By implementing these information networks and digital communication systems, a smart grid system is more capable of meeting changing demands and conditions, from global warming to emergency rationing.

Faculty members of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering oversaw most of the competition. General Electric contacted Tech’s new, multi-department Strategic Energy Institute (SEI) to act as an operational construct that connected GE to the students and their teams for this challenge.

“Groups of six to eight work on a particular part of the problem of realizing the Smart Grid. From an ECE perspective, it’s devices on the grid that can talk to each other and see what the status. In some cases, you reroute and adjust power requirements based on demand,” said Dr. Gary May, Chair of the School of ECE.

GE was involved in every step of the process and will continue to work with the top teams after the competition.

“[GE] puts up all the initial funding and supplies. They’ll also file for the patents and do all the legal work. By my understanding, they’ll be involved [in the rest of the process],” May said.

One of the teams won in the competition for smart grid reliability as well as the best presentation. Featuring Peter Suh, Ravishankar Nilakantan, Ryan Anderson, David Green and Xuebei Yu, the team designed a project that improved power reliability by reducing the duration and overall number of power outages.

The team took a broad-based approach that involved improving the capabilities of many different types of technologies. They created 10 technologies that were combined in very specific proportions to create an overall net result that decreased the overall duration and number of outages.

The team noted that they hoped to be one of many in what they called an energy revolution.

“It’s a revolution similar to the internet in that it promises new developments in communications. We even considered future developments like people plugging hybrids into the grid. We tried to make our solutions apply to situations a hundred years into the future because a hundred years was the length of the old power grid paradigm,” Green said.

GE’s involvement was unique in that it stressed the element of creative thinking. It took the traditional approaches to understanding the power grid and wanted the students to find blind spots with regards to that approach. The laid-back process was so successful that GE accepted six to 10 patent ideas for an investment that would receive only three in their own departments.

“There was a very laissez-faire approach where they didn’t curtail or direct our interests. Everyone seemed to have their own pet idea, which played well into our team strategy to combine many different elements,” Green said.

“It was a very innovative thing for GE to do. This problem was brand new. We were never told we had deadlines. It was a very lightly-stressed environment in which it leads to more creative thinking because your mind is free from deadlines,” Nilakantan said.

Another team won in the category of smart grid distribution losses. Led by Evangelo Farantatos, Robert Gill and Fan Cai, the team’s project involved a system-level solution that enables real-time monitoring of the system so they can optimize the operating conditions and minimize losses.

“The most challenging part was to combine the knowledge and experience from different disciplines into the same solution,” said Evangelos Farantatos, a third year PhD in ECE.

The official goal was to be both innovative and realistic in finding a means to reduce distribution system losses by 30 percent in a cost-effective manner. Team members used various graduate classes as reservoirs for knowledge relating to the project.

The team members had some advice for future participants.

“Get familiar with your teammates’ work. Get to know what they’re working on. Later on you can work together more easily because you’ll have an idea of what they’re doing,” Gill said.

GE has already made plans to have another competition.

“We look for outside the classroom learning experiences for students, especially ones that have commercial impacts,” May said.