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Power Grids With Smarts

Published: April 18, 2016

According to electrical engineering faculty member Masoud Nazari, smart power grids in the 21st century mean power that is sustainable, resilient, reliable and cost-optimized.

Nazari, who joined CSULB last fall from a postdoctoral fellowship in electrical energy at the Georgia Institute of Technology from 2013-15, is interested in the distributed operation and control of smart power grids, economic impacts of emerging technologies on electricity markets, large-scale integration of renewable energy sources, and policy implications for modernizing legacy power systems.

Nazari defines a smart power grid as a power grid, which is self-healing, has a large penetration of renewable energy sources, is ultra-reliable and efficient and is empowered by recent advancement in network control, computer science and communication.

“The traditional structure of a power system is a centralized architecture with a few large power plants at a distance from the power consumers,” he said. “Most of them use fossil fuels. In the U.S., about 65 percent of electricity is produced by fossil fuel. That includes coal, oil and natural gas.

“But a smart grid has new technologies such as electric vehicles, smart buildings with solar generation, microgrids, etc.,” he added. “Most of these new technologies will be closer than the remote power stations we know today. In the near future, the line between the producer and consumer of electricity will become blurry and the grid will be populated with thousands/millions of prosumers (producer-consumers). For instance, an electric vehicle can become a prosumer and make a contribution to the grid. Assume you could put all these small players together. They would create a virtual power plant. Instead of having a few large power plants, with a centralized architecture, a city would have a distributed architecture where everyone could contribute to the grid.”

Nazari will perform much of his grid research in a new campus lab.

“I’ve equipped it with the help from the campus’ professional partner, Southern California Edison,” he said. “This lab will combine the theoretical and practical by performing simulations.”

He’s pleased by the real-world applications of his lab research. “I remember researching the Azores Islands for my doctoral thesis,” he said. “The Azores are a chain of nine volcanic islands roughly 900 miles west of Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I had the opportunity to visit Portugal and collaborate with the public utility of Azores Islands, which taught me how important it is that we learn how things work and how to improve them. If we can make the power grid sustainable, then we can have a huge impact. This could be a game changer.”

One of the lab’s first projects will be the construction of a model portraying CSULB’s own power grid.

“This campus is like a small city,” he said. “It is a micro-grid, where the energy demand varies from five to 12 megawatts. We want to see if we can make this grid sustainable. We want to look at the use of advanced technologies to reduce the consumption of electricity coming from dirty power plants. Our goal is to help make management of the system smarter and more efficient. The projects we perform in this lab will have real-world impacts. Who knows? After Long Beach, we may want to measure the city then the state.”

Electrical engineering’s Masoud Nazari holding a charger while powering up an electric vehicle, one of the emerging technologies in the smart grid.
Electrical engineering’s Masoud Nazari holding a charger while powering up an electric vehicle, one of the emerging technologies in the smart grid.

Right now, between 90 and 95 percent of the electricity for CSULB comes from Edison which gets its from the larger California system of energy, Nazari explained.

“The state of California right now gets a large portion of its power created by fossil fuels. There are proposals to create 50 percent use of renewable energy by 2030. But, despite existing solar power panels on campus, we end up producing harmful emissions somewhere else,” he said. “One way we can approach the problem is to add more renewable energy sources on campus. With our model, we can get an idea of the impact we have on the surrounding community.”

Nazari received his master’s degree from Sharif University in Tehran before arriving in the U.S. in 2007. He obtained his dual Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering (power and control systems) and engineering and public policy (energy policy) from Carnegie Mellon University in 2012. He was also a visiting Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2011.

Participating in his lab helps to prepare his students for future careers.

“The first priority for this lab is education,” he said. “The second is research. My emphasis for student research has always been on real-world applications. There will be real-world equipment to deal with real-world problems. When our students finish their projects, they will be ready to work for Edison, Tesla or Solar City. That is my vision.”