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The mathematics of power: Lehigh research cluster hosts smart grid seminar

Yue Zhao, postdoctoral researcher at Princeton and Stanford, is a researcher who seeks to reduce power grid failures. But he isn’t designing better substations or more resilient transformers. Instead, Zhao uses the tools of advanced mathematics to better understand and predict power grid behavior. In late January, he shared his breakthrough ideas via a seminar for Lehigh students and faculty sponsored by Lehigh’s Integrated Networks for Electricity (INE) research cluster.

Power blackouts in the U.S. cost $188 billion annually, according to Zhao. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates at least 500,000 Americans are affected daily by power outages – analogous to the population of Las Vegas. The frequency and severity of outages are only increasing.

The combination of climate change and an aging power infrastructure has left the power grid vulnerable to blackouts. Zhao said eight out of the 30 most destructive storms since 1900 occurred after 2000.

"There is not only an average increase in temperatures but also more extreme weather, with more extreme hot and cold days," explained Zhao.

Furthermore, investments in the transmission network, the key system that carries power flow, over a 25 year period has been steadily decreasing. This has led to an outdated infrastructure.

Zhao’s solution to the blackout issue is real-time situational awareness.

"We need to increase early detection of power grid failures before it escalates to failures of a greater scale," Zhao said.

He highlighted the significance of early detection with the example of the 2011 Southwest blackout, leaving seven million Americans out of power. It only took 11 minutes from the first grid component failure to a complete system collapse. If the problem was discovered in real-time it would have prevented a devastating blackout.

Zhao and his colleagues enhance situational awareness via optimal inference of the network conditions. In other words, inferring which grid locations best represent the health of the entire power system. Accurate information about what is going on in various parts the power grid will yield faster reaction time to failures.

Other research interests that have complimented Zhao’s most recent work include infrastructure resilience and security, game theory, and control of cyber-physical systems. Zhao received his B.E. degree from the Department of Electronic Engineering at Tsinghua University in 2006, and his Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering from University of California, Los Angeles.

Lehigh’s INE research cluster seeks to explore and ultimately to manage and optimize the flow of electricity, information and money in the power grid. Researchers in the group include computer scientists, electrical engineers, economists, mathematicians and others with a variety of backgrounds. By merging an array of disciplines, the cluster seeks to develop tomorrow's advanced electricity systems.

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