Krein works to make small-scale electricity grids reliable

ECE News

Laurel Bollinger, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • Prof. Philip Krein is working to make small-scale electricity grids more reliable.
  • Krein was motivated by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed all electrical systems in New Orleans.
  • His research may also have applications for large scale campus computing centers.

Philip T. Krein
Philip T. Krein

ECE Professor Philip T Krein is working on a way to make small-scale electricity grids more reliable. He is looking particularly at what are known as “microgrids,” which he describes as “a smallish, self-contained system that has the ability to function on its own. It comprises its own power sources, energy storage devices and loads, and is usually interconnected with a larger grid.” Systems like this are being explored for military bases, industrial parks, and in some cases, neighborhoods.

In one of his projects, Krein is focusing on telecommunications systems using microgrids. In order to improve reliability, he has been working on making the system more independent, which will also help to improve flexibility. “This system will have solar power and will also be able to hook up to a diesel generator, whatever might be available,” said Krein. “But if something goes wrong you can either back yourself up to whatever grid or power source you’re connected to, or you have this self-contained system that can still function if there is a delay in other power sources.”

A recent disaster has been a strong motivator in this research. Hurricane Katrina took out all the electrical systems in NewOrleans to such an extreme that people couldn’t even use radio communication. “There wasn’t anything for emergency use for several days,” said Krein. “And it got to the point that after a few days, it wasn’t possible to get fuel to those places to help power communication networks even with diesel generators. Hurricane Katrina and communications in NewOrleans afterwards were both a disaster, and we’re working so that doesn’t happen again.”

ECE Professor Phil Krein and his research group are working on improving the reliability of microgrids, which are self-contained power systems that could function independently.
ECE Professor Phil Krein and his research group are working on improving the reliability of microgrids, which are self-contained power systems that could function independently.

However, making these applications and modifications comes with their share of complications. Executing these features on a small scale could take a long time. “It turns out that the process of putting together an electricity grid can be a fairly long one,” said Krein. “You have all these parts you want to turn on and get operating. It’s one of the reasons why, after a major blackout, it may take a few days until the utilities can reassemble the system.”

And that leads to another challenge. Krein wants to make the process easy so that someone can take a machine, turn it on, and the system would come together by itself. But this also poses another issue.

“With this other challenge, questions arise around how we integrate all these different resources that really aren’t compatible,” said Krein. “We’re trying to make solar powered batteries, diesel generators, wind turbines, fuel cells, and other generators work together and talk to each other in a way that is easier.”

This research project has been in development for almost a decade, and Krein and his research group have had several collaborators. “We’ve been doing research related to this in one way or another for probably ten years but always in bits and pieces,” he said. “A lot of the work we do now is in conjunction with the US Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineering Research lab here in Champaign.”

Krein is also considering taking this research a step further to a large-scale project for the campus such as a computing center that would be supported by similar kinds of reliable power. In fact, Krein and his group are trying to move beyond the use of the term microgrid because that does not fully describe everything they are trying to do. “We’re doing something that is much more than that in terms of flexibility and breadth,” said Krein.

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