Peter W. Sauer


Peter Sauer
Peter Sauer

Q: What is your area of expertise?
A: I work in electric power systems, which means I deal with the large-scale interconnected grid, utility networks, transmission lines, and big generators. I basically do the big power systems stuff, mostly modeling, simulation, and analysis. We don’t do laboratories at that scale. It’s kind of hard. People tend to be either systems people or device people. Device people have laboratories, and they build things. Systems people normally don’t do that. We study the behavior of complex interactions of these devices; usually involving computer simulation, the easiest way to analyze the stability of the network.

Q: Why did you become an electrical engineer?
A: I started out as an electrician’s assistant in my high school days. I actually wanted to be an electrician, but my guidance counselor in high school said, ‘You can’t be an electrician. Your father is a professor, so you have to become an engineer.’ So I said, ‘OK.’ I wasn’t going to argue with my guidance counselor. So instead of becoming an electrician for the rest of my life, I went to the University of Missouri at Rolla for a BS in electrical engineering.

Q: Give me a brief synopsis of your education and career.
A: I graduated in spring of ’69 from Missouri at Rolla, and my options were either be drafted by the Army to go to Vietnam, or enlist as an electrical engineer in the Air Force. It was an easy decision - I joined the Air Force and served four years of active duty. We traveled throughout the United States mostly, helping in the different Air Force base facility design projects - runway lighting, building design, electrical distribution. I was the electrical guy. The nice thing about the military is that you get four years of college education paid for by the G.I. bill. That was the way it was back then. So I said, ‘Well I already have my bachelor’s degree, so I can use the G.I. bill to go to graduate school.’ I was interested in going to grad school; I was interested in becoming a professor. It was probably related to what that high school guidance counselor said: ‘You’re father was a professor, so you can’t become an electrician.’ The difference is that my father was a professor of Lutheran theology. He was not an engineer.

I had a research assistantship, teaching assistantship and the G.I. bill at Purdue. After four years of graduate work, I got my master’s and PhD in electrical engineering. Then I left Purdue and came right here. That was in the fall of 1977. So it’s been just over 30 years that I’ve been here, in this room at Illinois. I haven’t left this room in 30 years, except to go home.

Q: Why do you enjoy working at ECE Illinois?
A: The people are so collegial. We collaborate, we do things together; we often eat lunch together. That’s why I’ve been here for 30 years. I’ve been to other places, and I don’t like what I see. The people in the department, the university, the staff - they’re just nicer here than people in many other places. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the Midwest and the work ethic. It’s just a good place to be. The University is a great university because of the things that people have done, and because of the way they are. They’re just nice people. You don’t get that everywhere.

Q: Tell me about a research accomplishment you’re proud of.
A: The power systems area is the oldest area of electrical engineering. It used to be that anybody that was an electrical engineer did electric power, back in the early 1900s. So the entire field is full of a lot of heuristic methods - ways of doing things that are not fully understood over all this time. One thing that I do a lot is try to understand complex phenomenon and design solutions to the problems. For example, the recent blackout of 2003 was in a large part due to voltage problems - things called reactive power - which are very difficult topics to understand and to do anything about. So, I have devoted a lot of my work towards understanding the complexity of those issues and then coming up with software to simulate those phenomena and to decide what to do if something bad happens. We do something called contingency analysis: pretend a tornado comes through and wipes out a transmission line. What happens to the system? We do simulations to check that out and see. That involves very large-scale simulation and has to be done very efficiently because you have to simulate hundreds of these things. That computer simulation is a big part of what I do - and contributing to the efficient ways to do those simulations, and the models that you need to do it.

I was also very pleased to be part of the creation of PowerWorld Corporation in 1995, which was [ECE Professor] Tom Overbye’s initiative. It was supposed to be like a videogame, but now all of a sudden it became an actual tool. Everyone loves the simplicity of it. You can actually see electrons flowing down the lines of the transmission system, whereas before, you run a program and all you see is a bunch of numbers.

PowerWorld is the premier visualization tool for electric power systems that can be used in control centers. They have to be able to feel what’s going on and hopefully be able to see it somehow. And PowerWorld helps them see what’s happening: it’s called situational awareness. It is in companies probably all over the world, it’s not just a U.S. tool. It’s recognized internationally as a valuable thing. I was just involved in the start-up of PowerWorld, and it’s been one of the highlights of my career here.

Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
A: I like explaining topics that students often have trouble with. There were things that I had trouble with when I was a student, so I know they do too. I like making it understandable, making them realize that the stuff that engineers do is easy as soon as you figure out what’s going on. That’s what I like about teaching - to make it be that way - to make it be easy. I forget who it was, but (a fellow colleague) always said, you know that you’ve really done some research that’s worthwhile, or some teaching that’s worthwhile, if you can explain it in a step-by-step sequence that everyone can understand, perhaps even your mother. So explaining things in a way that certainly the undergraduates and graduates will understand, is what teaching is all about.

Q: What role do students play in your research?
A: When I was young, I did most of my research myself. I would do software programming, calculations, come up with solutions to things. The older you get, the less time you have to do research, but the graduate students are eager to do the research that I used to do myself. We train them how to do research. It’s part of teaching. People say teaching is just in the classroom - stand up with chalk and talk - but we teach our graduate students how to do research. Students need training in how to be a productive researcher, how to think, how to ask questions, how to attack problems. When they finish with their PhDs, they know more than we do about the subject. And it has to happen that way, or else life would go backwards. In order to go forward, the graduate students have to leave smarter than us. Graduate students are a lot of work to guide because they come in sometimes without a feeling for innovation and thinking, and you have to teach them some of that. But most of them are pretty smart, so once you get them pointed in the right direction, they do it.

The nice thing about our area is that the Grainger Foundation had given us a $1 million endowment for graduate students back in 1987. It’s now worth about $2 million. The endowment is used to pay for research assistantships for graduate students. Because we have that money, we can hire grad students to work on anything they want. It’s like fellowship money, as there are no strings attached to it. That’s a huge benefit that we have. There’s nobody else that has that, besides us.

Q: What are you focused on today?
A: Right now there’s a growing movement to be able to evaluate the state of the power system from measurements, kind of like taking your temperature. There are certain measurements you can take on your body that tell you the health you’re in, and give you warning signs if they are outside the limits. We are trying to do that with the power system. That’s the holy grail of the stuff we’re working on right now: coming up with the proper quantities to measure, in real time, and make a decision about the health of the system. It is very big, very complex, and there are always a lot of issues with restructuring.

There are other topics we’re looking at too. For example, how do we model the load on a system? It’s impossible to model every device in detail, but a model of a light bulb is easy. The model of a computer power supply is a little more complicated. But you can’t model millions and millions of little devices. So we need models that will properly represent the behavior of the system for Champaign-Urbana, for example. How do we model the whole system as maybe one device, or as a bunch of different devices? That’s a modeling challenge that has been in existence for years. It remains as one of the highest priorities for people that do research in this area: load modeling.

Q: What does the future hold?

Evaluating the state of the system with a minimum amount of real-time measurement. We would like to not have to do all the simulations and rely on the models. We’re still looking for the right things to measure that we can use as indicators of the health of the grid. It’s coming up with the quantities to measure and then also displaying it to the operators and people so they know what to do. That’s the future, and it’s not easy. People have been playing with this idea for a long time. I would say in the next 10 years, that’s probably what I’m going to be working on. We’re also involved with the Information Trust Institute. We have a large National Science Foundation project to look at cyber security architectures for power systems. All computer communication is subject to hackers. George Gross, Tom Overbye, and I are working with the computer people in Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid (TCIP). We’re taking two completely different subjects - they’re both electrical and computer engineering - but usually computer scientists and computer engineers don’t worry or care about power systems. And usually power systems people don’t worry or care about computer engineers or computer science. We take completely different people and put them together, and it’s kind of fun. I’m quite involved with industry in that role. I have learned who the industry people are that care about this stuff.