With the opening of Ameren Illinois’ new smart grid Technology Applications Center at the University of Illinois a little over a month ago, budding entrepreneurs now have a live grid on which to test ideas.
Smart grid technology, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, is bringing electricity delivery systems into the 21st century. As smartphones have soared in popularity in the wireless world, the smart grid - in essence, computerizing the electric grid - is the latest technology for utilities.
The $3.3 million testing facility is a collaboration between Ameren Illinois and U of I at Champaign-Urbana. Ron Pate, vice president of operations and technical services for Ameren Illinois, says the energy company is currently “in serious discussions” with one fairly large company and several entrepreneurs to start testing soon at the center.
The TAC is a key component of the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act that was passed by Illinois legislators in 2011. Under the act, Ameren Illinois is investing an additional $643 million over 10 years in smart grid-related improvements and new technologies.
“The TAC will help facilitate research and development of smart grid technologies and support the state’s economic development and job creation goals, too,” Pate said. “It’s already providing small businesses and entrepreneurs with the infrastructure and resources they need to test programs, technologies, business models and other smart grid-related energy improvements on a live grid.”
The U of I for years has had similar testing facilities, says Pate and William H. Sanders, interim department head of the U of I’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, but they weren’t “live” — meaning they didn’t afford instructors, students and the R&D community the opportunity to test technologies under load or electrical current. In contrast, the new TAC, located west of the university’s Research Park, features a substation and two distribution circuit feeders that are enabling developers to test smart grid-related equipment by connecting to 69,000-volt and 12,000-volt systems on Ameren’s energy distribution network. Pate says the center can accommodate both utility-scale testing and residential products testing. It’s the residential products testing — on grid-enabled home appliances — that’s the most fun to operate and watch, he says.
“Right before we held our open house on the facility back in August, I had the opportunity to be a part of the smart grid remote testing on home appliances,” said Pate. “From 100 miles away using an iPad, we could remotely turn a standard home clothes washer and dryer on and off that was located at the TAC, or even modify the settings for a delayed start time on either appliance. This is the kind of energy-saving technology that entrepreneurs are developing all kinds of ideas for, and now they’ll have a live grid at the U of I that is available to them, through this partnership with Ameren, to test those ideas. It’s really exciting.”
Ameren Illinois has a secondary site in Decatur (opened in 2012) that provides companies access to even larger utility system loads to perform equipment and systems testing.
Sanders says the U of I’s own extensive grid test bed is connected to Ameren Illinois’; the academic and business industry partnership is and has produced much fruit, he says.
“With the completion of this new center, it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to take the ideas that we’ve developed in the research lab and look at their applicability in Ameren’s environment,” said Sanders. “It’s also very important to us from an educational point of view. We’ve developed extensive educational materials, not only at a college level but at a K through 12 level and at a community level. From our perspective, the collaboration taking place between the university and the utility is enormous.”
Separate from what is taking place at the TAC but also integral to U of I’s smart grid mission, the university is fiercely attuned to cyber security.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy, backed by the Department of Homeland Security, funded $18.5 million over five years for U of I to study how best to improve the security and reliability of the nation’s power grid.
Researchers from four other major U.S. universities have collaborated with U of I in the work, and Sanders says it continues.
“This Department of Energy-funded project, with support from the Department of Homeland Security, recognizes that today’s quality of life depends on the continuous functioning of the nation’s electric power infrastructure,” said Sanders, “which in turn depends on the health of an underlying computing and communication network infrastructure that is at serious risk from both malicious cyber attacks and accidental failures. These risks may come from cyber hackers who gain access to control networks or create denial of service attacks on the networks themselves, or from accidental causes, such as natural disasters or operator errors.