We are more connected to each other than we’ve ever been. But the electricity we use to power our smart phones, laptops, and iPads -- not to mention to heat and run our households -- is expensive. Perhaps worse yet, at times, it is inefficient and insecure. One only needs a few frustrating hours without power, flashlight or candle in hand, to realize how important efficient electricity truly is.
Lehigh’s Integrated Networks for Electricity (INE) research group seeks to add a layer of intelligence to the grid of power plants and substations that generate electricity to more than 300 million Americans.
“The idea is to overlay an information network like the Internet on top of the power grid we’re familiar with,” says Rick Blum, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of INE. “This will allow us to create an exciting new environment with great potential for giving electricity providers and consumers a level of control that’s never existed before.”
The goal of smart grid technology is to more closely align electricity supply with electricity demand and to facilitate the use of cleaner, alternate energy sources. The smart grid will inform consumers on real-time prices and availability of electricity and help power suppliers better determine consumers’ power needs.
Ultimately, researchers imagine a future where freak storms no longer bring homes and business to a halt. Instead, backup “micro-grids” will kick in and generate power until primary distribution can be restored.
It’s not a pipe dream: A total of $11 billion in smart-grid investments was allocated in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. By nearly all accounts, a massive upgrade of the U.S. electrical infrastructure is already overdue. Peak demand for power to feed energy hungry air conditioners, electronics and appliances has exceeded growth in transmission capacity by 25 percent a year since the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Making the smart grid a reality, says Blum, will require development of what some call the “Enernet.” This massive yet decentralized new system will allow the easy, reliable and simultaneous flow of three essential commodities -- electricity, information and money. “The core technologies that are needed to develop the smart grid include information technology, microelectronics and communication networking,” says Blum. “These intersecting areas fit precisely with Lehigh’s strengths and give us significant opportunities to collaborate with industry.
Lehigh’s INE research team surrounds these core technical areas with experts from an array of disciplines such as economics, computer science, mathematics, industrial engineers, and power system electronics. This diverse group shares a singular goal – to explore, and ultimately to manage and optimize, a much more intelligent way to power our lives.