ECE researchers part of $25 million grid-integration technology consortium

12/6/2021

Laura Schmitt

Research Engineer Olaolu Ajala (left) and Professor Alejandro Dominguez-Garcia (right) in their lab.
Research Engineer Olaolu Ajala (left) and Professor Alejandro Dominguez-Garcia (right) in their lab.

Illinois ECE Professor Alejandro Dominguez-Garcia and Research Engineer Olaolu Ajala are part of a $25 million Department of Energy-funded consortium that is addressing the reliability challenges involved in integrating more solar and wind energy onto the nation’s electric grid.

Dominguez-Garcia with the lab's power grid real-time emulators. These devices include detailed mathematical models of power grid components. Collectively, they provide a platform for high-fidelity real-time emulation of any power grid, with time resolution as low as 500 nanoseconds.
Dominguez-Garcia with the lab's power grid real-time emulators. These devices include detailed mathematical models of power grid components. Collectively, they provide a platform for high-fidelity real-time emulation of any power grid, with time resolution as low as 500 nanoseconds.

The Universal Interoperability for Grid-Forming Inverters (UNIFI) consortium brings together leading researchers from more than 40 university, industry, and utility organizations to evaluate and design grid-forming inverter solutions that will enable the seamless integration of inverter-based renewable resources while ensuring the grid’s stability and reliability. 

“What we aim to do is figure out how to operate the power grid with a very large amount of renewable-based generation instead of using fossil fuel generating units,” said Alejandro Dominguez-Garcia. “The technology we need to use to achieve that is very different from the technology we currently have in the grid for generating power.”

The current power grid, which relies heavily on fossil fuel generating units for producing electricity, is dominated by synchronous generators with large rotational inertia. If severe weather, natural disasters, or equipment failures cause regional disruption in power generation, the massive generators immediately release some of the kinetic energy they have stored in their rotors; this helps riding through the specific event and avoids disruption in electrical service. 

Increasingly though, renewable-based resources, e.g., solar and wind, are being added to the power grid and these resources are interfaced with the power grid by power-electronic converters; thus, exhibiting a very different behavior than synchronous generators. This inverter-based system lacks inertia, so there’s no stored energy available to compensate for emergency disruptions in electrical generation.

“The power system will behave very differently than what we are used to as you retire large synchrounous generators and replace them with renewable-based generators,” Dominguez-Garcia said.

4-node-demo: A GUI for monitoring the power system
4-node-demo: A GUI for monitoring the power system

Dominguez-Garcia and Ajala will apply their expertise in control algorithm design, modeling, and simulation to the project. Specifically, they will design control algorithms to ensure that a future renewable-based system operates reliably. They will also evaluate the algorithms by testing them in a real-time emulation of the power system.

“You don’t have the luxury to [validate your designs] in a real power system because it is already in operation,” he said.

Ajala, pictured with orange and blue distributed control nodes behind him. These devices are geographically dispersed across the power grid. Collectively, they use data acquired via local measurements and via information exchange with other control nodes, to regulate the response of energy resources in the power grid and meet system operational objectives.
Ajala pictured with orange and blue distributed control nodes behind him. These devices are geographically dispersed across the power grid. Collectively, they use data acquired via local measurements and via information exchange with other control nodes, to regulate the response of energy resources in the power grid and meet system operational objectives.

Instead, the Illinois researchers will perform testing and validation of their algorithms in a hardware-in-the-loop emulation environment, which is a sophisticated simulation technique of a real system that has used by the automotive and aircraft industries for years. They’ll also examine how to scale their emulation schemes to large-scale power grids. 

UNIFI is led by the National Renewable Energy Lab, the University of Washington, and the Electric Power Research Institute. During the five-year project, the consortium will demonstrate next-generation power systems using federated hardware test beds housed at partner institutions. The field demonstrations will include at least a 20-MW system featuring different manufacturer technologies and operating scenarios. The consortium will also produce training materials for the future workforce and industry-standard models and tools to facilitate growth in renewables.

Several other UNIFI researchers have ties to Illinois ECE. For example, University of Minnesota Associate Professor Sairaj Dhople (PhD 2012) was advised by Dominguez-Garcia, University of Washington Assistant Professor Brian Johnson (PhD 2013) was advised by ECE Professor Phil Krein, and Patrick Chapman, who is a VP at microinverter tech company Enphase Energy, is a former faculty member at Illinois.