Enhancing the reliability and resilience of the power grid — and training a new generation of energy experts

from Ideas to Answers
Thursday, April 29, 2021

“The technology that makes our lives what we know it depends on the power grid — and our work has direct impact to grid contingencies like the recent electric power disaster in Texas, to help North Carolina avoid a similar situation.”

Sherif Abdelrazek ’14, M.S., ’15 Ph.D., was inspired by a seminar presented by the late Prof. Ahmed Zewael to pursue a career in energy while working toward a bachelor’s degree in electrical power and machines engineering in his native Egypt. When he learned about UNC Charlotte’s EPIC (Energy Production and Infrastructure Center) and its focus on supporting industry-focused research and development, he knew that was where he wanted to continue his education in electrical engineering

“At UNC Charlotte, I had the opportunity to focus on research projects sponsored by industry leaders like Siemens Energy and major utilities such as Duke Energy,” he said.

Similarly, Sheikh Jakir Hossain ’19 Ph.D., participated in several industry research projects while pursuing a doctorate in electrical engineering at UNC Charlotte. 

“EPIC and the Lee College of Engineering offer a wide range of research opportunities in my area of interest,” said Hossain, who earned an undergraduate degree in electrical and electronics engineering in his home country of Bangladesh before, like Abdelrazek, traveling across the globe to study in Charlotte. “My transition from academia to industry was smooth because of the training and exposure to real-world grid challenges and industry expertise available at UNC Charlotte.”

Now, both Abdelrazak and Hossain are applying what they learned through their experience with EPIC to careers at Duke Energy, Abdelrazek as a renewables engineering manager in energy storage and Hossain as a power systems engineer with the regulated renewables engineering team. Their professional trajectories fulfill a key goal of the public-private partnership formed in 2018 among UNC Charlotte, specifically, EPIC and The William States Lee College of Engineering; Duke Energy Corporation; North Carolina’s Department of Energy and several other university partners: Prepare the next generation of engineers to manage the complex and dynamic North Carolina power grid, which Hossain describes as “a modern marvel and a cornerstone of modern civilization.” 

Making the smart grid smarter

It is the Duke Energy Smart Grid Laboratory located within the Albert & Freeman Energy Production and Infrastructure Center that provides faculty and students hands-on access to state-of-the-art mechanisms for advanced testing and evaluation of smart grid-enabling technologies and energy systems. Emphasizing education, research and outreach activities aimed at modernizing the power grid, the lab supports utilities, vendors and agencies throughout the region as well as nationally and internationally. 

It is this focus that earned EPIC a $4.6 million award in 2020 from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) to develop an electricity grid management tool that detects cyber and physical threats, and forms dynamic clusters to manage photovoltaics and energy storage. The success of this project, led by principal investigator Sukumar Kamalasadan, Duke Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, prompted additional support from SETO earlier this year for $3.6 million to improve the reliability and resilience of the regional electrical grid. Badrul Chowdhury, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is principal investigator.

The project, one of 10 chosen nationwide for support and the only one in North Carolina, unites public and private partners in the development of an advanced microgrid control architecture. It will coordinate seamlessly with the bulk power grid at multiple points of common coupling, automatically balance load and generation, provide critical services at a minimum, detect faulty conditions on a continuous basis, communicate with distributed energy resources, form networked microgrids with neighboring communities when needed and maintain safe operating conditions.

“These projects address key technical issues associated with strengthening the power grid against storms and other threats,” said Robert Cox, associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and associate director of EPIC. “They offer solutions to issues such as predicting where outages might occur, creating small islanded microgrids during and after storms, and protecting a power system that must rely on a time-varying mix of generating assets.”

Cox added that the University’s partnership with Duke Energy allows UNC Charlotte to understand industry challenges and participate in solutions, and working with the North Carolina Department of Energy helps to ensure that solutions are meeting the state’s expectations as laid out in the NC Clean Energy Plan.

"This project will be a national model for organizing a resilient grid in a state with climate challenges like North Carolina,” said Mike Mazzola, EPIC’s director. 

From Duke Energy’s perspective, the work is important to help ensure the grid is protected against natural and man-made threats to keep customers and communities safe, and the state strong. 

“It is essential that we continue improving and investing in the electric grid -- to strengthen it against extreme weather and enhance reliability for customers,” said Mike McIntire, Duke Energy’s director of government affairs, energy, the environment and stakeholder engagement. “Not only do millions of people depend on reliable power but it is what keeps the economy running. DOE support allows for an open dialogue among Duke Energy, state government, public university researchers and local emergency management planners to ensure resilience improvements are identified and addressed.”

‘The future is electric’

Looking forward, Abdelrazak, who predicts “the future is electric,” and Hossain foresee a greater emphasis on the power grid’s capacity to accommodate increased use of electric vehicles. Along with more electric vehicles comes expanding the infrastructure needed for greater numbers of charging stations and enhanced energy storage systems to meet demand created by the simultaneous charging of thousands of electric vehicles.

“Energy sources used for generating electricity are changing to meet net-zero carbon goals — for the electric vehicle industry as well as other industries working to decarbonize,” said Hossain. “To remain ahead of the curve, we’ll need to plan well. It is an exciting time to be involved with the power and energy industry.”