Penn State launches Center for Sustainable Electric Power Systems

Interdisciplinary research initiative focuses on renewable power systems and markets

The GridSTAR microgrid facilities at The Navy Yard in Philadelphia provide a unique testbed for CSEPS researchers into technologies, control strategies and market designs. Credit: Elizabeth ResenicAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Today’s power systems are going through a significant transition to move toward a more sustainable framework. This can be seen by the increasing integration of renewable resources, the growth of distributed generation, the burgeoning need for dispatchable grid storage and heightened levels of demand by companies around the world.

Both industry and government are eager to hear new insights and see the development of efficient tools to design and manage the progression to sustainable energy networks in the coming years.

This conversion, however, poses a unique set of interrelated challenges that until now have been handled within narrow disciplinary boundaries at Penn State.

Researchers Uday Shanbhag and Mort Webster have set out to change that approach by creating an interdisciplinary research center that aims to address the difficulties that emerge from the design, planning and operation of the next generation of power systems and markets.

Funded by the Earth and Mineral Sciences Energy Institute, the Center for Sustainable Electric Power Systems (CSEPS) brings together university faculty from a variety of disciplines—including engineering, economics, earth sciences and agricultural sciences—to develop innovative research projects that are centered on sustainable electric power.

“The expertise of the individuals we have here at Penn State in these disciplines, combined with the opportunities created by the encouragement of interdisciplinary research at the university, provides us with a tremendous opportunity to work more efficiently—and effectively—together to make Penn State a leader in sustainable power systems research and education,” said Shanbhag, the center’s co-director and associate professor in the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering.

The concerns researchers are facing require the use of tools from a variety of different fields of study that include control and information theory, optimization theory, probability theory, numerical linear algebra and economic game theory.

CSEPS serves as a venue for research faculty across the university to discuss questions and pose theories on power systems concepts in a collaborative setting which becomes much more beneficial to the research and the researcher rather than working individually, added Shanbhag.

The center will host seminars, allow for joint advising of students and facilitate collaboration on research projects as it works to garner enough support to house its own laboratory space and center facilities.

Research Challenges

The challenges researchers are up against in designing more sustainable power systems are independent yet interrelated and include: the integration of larger amounts of renewable generation while maintaining reliability; the reduction of air emissions and water use; the leveraging of new technologies for distributed generation and demand response; the design of joint markets for electricity, emission permits and water that all regulate the same infrastructure; and the development of scalable techniques for solving commitment, dispatch and planning of generation resources in uncertain and dynamic environments.

“Rather than try to address the various environmental and economic challenges independently as has been the standard approach, the CSEPS approach is to recognize that the single infrastructure of the electric power system simultaneously impacts air, water, climate and the economy, and to frame the problem as one complex engineering and economic design problem,” said Mort Webster, co-director of the center and associate professor of energy and mineral engineering in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering.

There are a number of research themes emphasized and promoted by the CSEPS to answer some of the questions that arise when looking into these systems. One such theme centers on new paradigms for power systems that integrate traditional power systems engineering with the engineering design of new generation technologies and networking, communication and smart-grid technologies, and the economics of efficient market design.

Another theme examines the computational and algorithmic advances that are required to address the design challenges of a sustainable power system, including new methods for nonlinear optimization, multi-scale modeling to couple processes on different timescales and more efficient methods for uncertainty and multistage stochastic optimization.

Researchers will also look at joint market designs for electricity, emissions permits and water, and computational methods that integrate power systems models with atmospheric and geosciences models to capture feedback and interests.

Other focal points for the center are the methods used to inform energy technology research and development that couple engineering with economics, and explicitly value the benefits of technology for the joint systems within the overall system in which they would be embedded.

Center Leadership and Participating Researchers

The center is co-directed by Shanbhag and Webster, both of whom possess excellent track records of collaborative and interdisciplinary research efforts in their respected fields.

Shanbhag’s expertise lies in stochastic and nonlinear optimization as well as in the analysis of strategic interactions in power markets. He has worked closely with engineers and mathematicians on electric power systems research.

Webster’s background centers on uncertainty, risk and decision analysis. He has engaged in interdisciplinary research on climate change and environmental policy in close collaboration with physical and social scientists for nearly 20 years and has recently turned his attention to power systems.

Combined, Shanbhag and Webster have managed to secure over $6 million in externally funded research in the last decade, with most of the support coming from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE). Additionally, Webster brought in a significant industrial sponsorship while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a proposed center on sustainable electric power systems.

“The breadth, caliber and energy of the faculty and students at Penn State have inspired the creation of this center,” said Shanbhag. “We believe that this center will provide a fertile environment for sustained collaboration between this group for addressing amongst the most compelling of questions in the context of power systems.’’

George Kesidis, professor of electrical engineering and computer science engineering and an affiliated faculty member of the CSEPS, is researching energy efficient cloud computing—or green computing—which exploits renewables to reduce the average consumption of data centers and cloud computing.

“Cloud computing accounts for about 2 percent of overall energy consumption in the United States,” he said. “So there is tremendous opportunity to make a significant impact through our research with the CSEPS.”

Another affiliated faculty member is Chiara Lo Prete, assistant professor of energy economics in the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering. Her research focuses on strategic interactions in multi-settlement wholesale electricity markets, market design and price formation in electric distribution networks, and design and analysis of electricity and environmental markets.

“The challenge lies in creating incentives that support efficient market outcomes,” said Lo Prete. “Addressing the complexity of this challenge requires an integrated approach that combines multiple methodologies and areas of expertise, including economics, finance, statistics and optimization theory. The collaborative nature of the center will help overcome some of the inherent obstacles of this type of research.”

Research Activities

The CSEPS will build on existing collaborative research activities being pursued at Penn State and complement those efforts by enhancing visibility through interdisciplinary expansion. Examples of current research efforts that are under the direction of CSEPS affiliated faculty members and will enhance the work of the center include:

  • The Center for Climate Risk Management, directed by Klaus Keller, associate professor of geosciences, and the Center for Economic Research in Energy, the Environment and Resources, co-directed by Karen Fisher-Vanden, professor of environmental and resource economics, and Seth Blumsack, associate professor of energy policy and economics, which have brought together physical and social scientists to develop integrated approaches to climate and environmental risks.
  • The Battery and Energy Storage Center at Penn State has united engineering and operations research to work on technology-specific issues.
  • Penn State has partnered with Alstom, a leader in smart grid and innovative utility solutions, to establish a global center of excellence for microgrids at The Navy Yard in Philadelphia.
  • The DOE GridSTAR Smart Grid Experience Center is a smart grid education and research center that operates under the Department of Architectural Engineering at Penn State. The center was created to provide a platform to perform smart grid teaching, research and outreach efforts with industry partners in the unique setting of the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, explained David Riley, associate professor of architectural engineering and director of the center.

“As we shift our energy systems to include more renewable energy sources, we are also challenged to re-think how our electric grid will support an efficient and resilient energy supply,” added Riley, who is also affiliated with CSEPS. “The formation of the CSEPS provides a much needed instrument to engage faculty members in a collective effort to pursue the interdisciplinary research needed to tackle this challenge.”

Other affiliate faculty members of the center include: Jeffrey Brownson and Sarma Pisupati from energy and mineral engineering; Kirby Calvert from geography; Hosam Fathy from mechanical and nuclear engineering; Doug Wrenn from agricultural economics, sociology and education; Chris Forest from meteorology; Bhuvan Urgaonkar from computer science and engineering; Guodong Pang and Vittal Prabhu from industrial and manufacturing engineering; Susan Stewart from aerospace engineering and architectural engineering; and Minghui Zhu from electrical engineering.

Last Updated June 25, 2015