Microgrids, major changes: Professor leading effort to redesign power grid

Sarah Small
July 09, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard in 2012, entire city skylines went completely black with the curious exception of a few small areas still emitting light, thanks to their use of combined heat and power (CHP) systems, a key component to microgrids. Jim Freihaut, professor of architectural engineering in the Penn State College of Engineering, sees these microgrids not as exceptions but as the norm of the future.

Jim Freihaut, professor of architectural engineering

Jim Freihaut, professor of architectural engineering

IMAGE: Penn State

Freihaut, who also serves as the director of the Department of Energy Mid-Atlantic Combined Heat and Power Center and as a recently named Energy 2100 Fellow, is leading an interdisciplinary effort to redesign our nation’s power grid to better meet the energy and economic needs of the future. He conducts much of his research at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia.

“These extreme weather events are going to keep getting worse and worse, and cyberattacks will become more and more of a threat, so we ought to break up the central grid into a combination of a central grid and a bunch of microgrids that can really operate independently from the macrogrid,” Freihaut said.

Microgrids, which incorporate the electrical components of energy, and CHP district energy systems, which incorporate the heating, cooling and power components, can exist independently of each other but are most efficient when they both are incorporated into a system. These systems do not rely on the central grid as their primary power source; instead, they use their own mix of energy generation sources. Freihaut and his fellow researchers use hybrid microgrids that combine an engine, a fuel source and photovoltaic (PV) energy, known as solar.

These hybrid systems also contain batteries, allowing storage of energy produced by solar panels, as well as provide a backup source of PV energy during cloudy stretches of time before having to move to the option of burning fuel. Even when fuel is used, its use is still much more energy efficient than it would be when obtained from the central grid, according to Freihaut.

“If you put a unit of fuel in a microgrid system, up to 80 percent of that fuel is used effectively,” Freihaut said. “With the central grid, there is a generation inefficiency and then a big distribution inefficiency. If you put a unit of fuel into the central grid, by the time it arrives, about 66 percent of the energy has been lost.”

Recognizing the economic, environmental and security benefits to operating a localized energy system, some towns in Pennsylvania have taken the first steps toward creating microgrids by developing their own transmission and distribution systems for energy. The motivation for establishing local transmission and distribution systems came in part from power companies seeing the inefficiency in running cables to remote or rural areas. To mitigate those problems, local communities, including those in northwestern Pennsylvania, purchase energy from the central grid and handle the transmission and distribution themselves.

“It’s part of our land-grant mission to have an impact on society. Don’t just do research and publish; do that, but also do something that actually affects the lives of people in Pennsylvania.”

— Jim Freihaut, professor of architectural engineering and Energy 2100 Fellow

Going forward, however, Pennsylvanians are looking to become even more energy independent by handling their own generation of energy as well, by creating systems that local co-ops would operate. State politicians and local communities alike are beginning to consider the possibility of using the local resource of shale gas as one source of energy in a hybrid generation microgrid. These microgrids would make Pennsylvania's power systems more resilient in the face of natural disasters and cyberattacks, as well as more financially and environmentally efficient.

Under current antitrust laws intended to prevent monopolies, the same organization cannot operate generation, transmission and distribution of energy. As such, these future systems must include policy change.

“It’s kind of interesting. You’ve got the environmentalists, the economists and the gas guys all working together to help do this, except we don’t know exactly how to do it and how to scale it,” Freihaut said. “That’s the purpose of our research at the Navy Yard: to set up a working system to demonstrate that we can scale this.”

Freihaut’s work at the Navy Yard has been ongoing for four years, and he is beginning to see results not only in terms of the scalability but also in bringing together experts from multiple fields.

“There are all kinds of things going on here: economic business models, public policy research, regulations research and technical research,” Freihaut said. “It’s very interdisciplinary.”

In his role as an Energy 2100 Fellow, Freihaut works to bring these fields together by talking to department heads, deans and leaders in multiple disciplines from across Penn State campuses and encouraging them to be proactive in their involvement in distributed energy systems.

Freihaut is hopeful that with the help of future grants, he and his team will continue to advance solutions for the installation, commission and operation of a microgrid, as well as scaling factors.

“It’s part of our land-grant mission to have an impact on society,” Freihaut said. “Don’t just do research and publish; do that, but also do something that actually affects the lives of people in Pennsylvania.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 18, 2019