Power Ahead

Power Ahead

Clemson is now home to one of the world’s largest and most capable electrical grid simulators. Thanks to the work of Clemson graduate and eGRID creator Curtiss Fox, one day, renewable energy sources like wind, solar and more will do even more to make things go.

When the lights flicker, we barely notice. Our homes stay warm. Our laptops switch to battery backup. Maybe an old clock radio needs a reset, but otherwise life goes on uninterrupted.

In the world of distributed-energy production, however, even a momentary disruption in power can be a big deal.

Whether it’s something as small as a voltage fluctuation (think: a squirrel in a transformer or a tree falling on a power line) or something as significant as a cyber attack on the power grid, knowing how the next generation of energy will respond to these disruptions matters — a lot.

That’s where Curtiss Fox of the Clemson University Restoration Institute (CURI) comes in. The work he and his team are doing today at the University’s Energy Innovation Center on its grid simulator will forever change the way we power our nation, and even our world.

The Duke Energy eGRID has been under construction at Clemson’s Charleston-based testing facility since the first of this year, shortly after Fox was named director of operations. Assembly wrapped up on the eGRID this spring, and the summer months will be spent essentially turning the equipment on in preparation for the center’s first customer: a private company affiliated with the energy industry. Although the proverbial switch has yet to be flipped, the eGRID project has been four years in the making, with Fox at the helm since the very beginning — first as a Ph.D. student and now as director of operations. It’s no wonder the prospect of making the simulator come to life, likely sometime this fall, is so thrilling for Fox.

“This,” he offers enthusiastically, “is when you really start making the equipment perform.”

J. Curtiss Fox receiving his doctoral (2013) degree in electrical engineering from Clemson.

J. Curtiss Fox receiving his doctoral (2013) degree in electrical engineering from Clemson.

FOX RECEIVED HIS PH.D. IN ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING in December 2013, but his work on the eGRID project dates back to May 2010. At that time, the Department of Energy had just awarded a grant to the drivetrain facility so that it could conduct mechanical testing of wind turbines by constructing two wind turbine dynamometers: one 7.5 megawatts, one 15 megawatts.

The Department of Energy grant had a specific purpose: to allow Clemson to perform Highly Accelerated Life Tests on wind turbines — in layman’s terms, the tests are designed to simulate extreme events, those outside the turbine’s normal operating range, to see how they respond. These tests are important before the turbines are deployed to the field for obvious reasons, namely to prevent equipment failures and avoid expensive replacements on the highly technical equipment.

About the time the grant was awarded, Fox’s longtime Clemson adviser, Randy Collins, associate dean of the College of Engineering and Science and professor of electrical and computer engineering, attended a presentation about the then-proposed wind turbine drivetrain testing facility. Collins spoke with Energy Innovation Center facility director and senior scientist, Nick Rigas, and learned about an electrical diagram of the proposed facility. On that diagram, there was a box. But no one quite knew what type of equipment was going to go into the box.

Collins mentioned to Rigas that he had a grad student who could look into that for him. A few weeks later, Fox drove to Charleston. He met Rigas. He landed the job: grad assistant at CURI. Fox’s main objective was to figure out what kind of electrical equipment went into the box. He also was charged with designing power-flow studies and studying the transient response of the electrical equipment within the facility.

The rest is history, or the future — as the case may be.

THE BOX HAD A NAME, if not a specific function: LVRT equipment. It turns out it was actually an addition to the wind turbine facility’s electrical system. It wasn’t until after the grant was awarded that the Department of Energy came back to Clemson and asked if the University could also look at working an electrical test into what was otherwise mechanical testing of the wind turbine drivetrains.

The answer, thanks to Fox, was “yes.” That box was right in his wheelhouse. Low Voltage Ride-Through, or LVRT, is the ability of electrical equipment to keep working even when there are brief disturbances in the power system — something like lightning strikes, fallen trees or even animals on the power lines. When the lights flicker or short out, it’s because the flow of electricity has been disrupted. Fox had been pursuing a thesis on the subject, and now he had an opportunity to give it real-world application.

So, Fox developed a grid simulator to troubleshoot these kinds of power interruptions and reduce the risks that those in the energy industry worry about as they try to integrate new technologies into the electrical grid.

Since then, Fox’s work to bring this capability to the Energy Innovation Center has introduced a world-class, advanced testing platform capable of modeling grid conditions anywhere in the world.

The grid simulator is a center for innovation, where energy efficiency, energy storage and smart-grid technologies can be developed, tested and certified before they are rolled out for the mass marketplace. All the while, the project has been an opportunity to educate industry about power systems engineering and to show them how it could impact their future workforces.

“THE QUESTION THAT ARISES IS, ‘How do we go about integrating the renewable, distributed, new-generation storage energy equipment into the existing infrastructure, such that you can offset costs associated with upgrading the infrastructure?’” Fox explains of his work at CURI.

Think of it like this: Say you have a power line feeding a neighborhood, and then a developer decides to build again, and the neighborhood doubles in size. “They would either need to install another power line or rebuild it with bigger equipment,” Fox explains.

“But what if they could come in and install energy storage and not have to rebuild that power line?” Fox asks. “They could defer an upgrade, or avoid having to put in a whole new power line, by simply placing newer, more efficient equipment in existing locations.”

That’s exactly the kind of technology Fox’s grid simulator works to troubleshoot, something that is of great interest to utility companies, energy equipment manufacturers and national energy officials, among others. Specifically, the eGRID houses equipment that facilitates testing of the three key renewable energy technologies: energy storage, wind turbine energy and large, utility-scale solar energy.

It is this third and final component of the testing facility, a Photovoltaic (PV) Array Simulator, that is the most recent innovation moving Clemson to the forefront of the alternative energy field. Clemson’s PV Array Simulator — which essentially combines several acres of solar panels designed to capture energy from the sun into a small box — is scheduled to come online this fall, and when it does, it will be the largest such simulator in the world. It will also make Clemson’s grid simulator the only one in the world capable of testing all three of the key renewable-energy technologies.

The $98 million testing facility has been funded by a $45 million Department of Energy grant, and matched with $53 million of public and private funds. The eGRID represents another $12 million on top of that. It’s truly pioneering technology, something officials at the highest levels of government have taken notice of, including U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman.

“Developing America’s vast renewable energy resources is an important part of the Energy Department’s ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy to pave the way to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future,” Poneman offers. “The Clemson testing facility represents a critical investment to ensure America leads in this fast-growing global industry — helping to make sure the best, most efficient wind energy technologies are developed and manufactured in the United States.”

J. Curtiss Fox (right) chats with U.S. Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman at the dedication of the SCE&G Energy Innovation Center.

J. Curtiss Fox (right) chats with U.S. Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman at the dedication of the SCE&G Energy Innovation Center.

LAST YEAR FOX AND HIS COLLEAGUES FILED A U.S. PATENT on the grid simulator while he also successfully defended his dissertation on Low Voltage Ride-Through technology. The grid simulator project is now a separate, Department of Energy-sponsored project supported in large measure by corporate partners including Duke Energy and SCANA.

“The energy industry is a growing and changing industry,” offers Kevin Marsh, chairman and chief executive officer of SCANA Corporation, the parent company of SCE&G, a key partner in the project. “It is important for the private sector to work with public partners such as the U.S. Department of Energy and Clemson University to address the opportunities and challenges that face our industry.”

It’s Fox’s past collaboration that bodes so well for the future of the electrical grid.

“As a student, I was allowed to collaborate directly with industry,” Fox says in retrospect. “These projects are only a steppingstone for the research and innovation that will be needed for the grid of the future. I hope to continue to contribute to those efforts.”

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