N.C. State center to reinvent power grid

Posted September 4, 2008 12:59 p.m. EDT

— The National Science Foundation on Thursday selected North Carolina State University to lead a national research center that aims to revolutionize the nation’s power grid and speed renewable electric-energy technologies into every home and business.

The NSF Engineering Research Center for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management, or FREEDM, Systems will partner with universities, industry and national laboratories in 28 states and nine countries. It will be supported by a five-year, $18.5 million grant from NSF, with another $10 million in institutional support and industry membership fees.

More than 65 utility companies, electrical equipment manufacturers, alternative energy start-ups and other established and emerging firms have committed to joining the center.

"The unique vision of this (center) to enable the smooth inclusion of renewable energy sources into the power grid in a ‘plug-and-play’ mode will provide the knowledge and technology platforms the country needs to help reduce our dependency on fossil fuels," NSF Deputy Division Director Lynn Preston said in a statement.

The FREEDM Systems center will develop technology that transforms the nation’s century-old, centralized power grid into a "smart grid" that can easily store and distribute energy produced from solar panels, wind farms, fuel cells and other energy sources. That will enable millions of users to generate their energy from renewable sources and sell excess energy to the power companies.

“Securing this center is a landmark achievement for the college and the university that will add significant resources and momentum to NC State's energy research,” Louis A. Martin-Vega, dean of N.C. State's College of Engineering, said in the statement. “The technology developed at this center will distribute renewable energy on a large scale, helping to build a society based on green energy.”

Progress Energy Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Alex Huang will be the center’s director. He also directs the Advanced Transportation Energy Center, or ATEC, which was created in February to improve the technology for plug-in hybrid vehicles.

ATEC will operate as part of the FREEDM Systems center, and Huang said batteries in plug-in hybrids will eventually be able to deliver electricity back to the grid when the vehicles aren't in use.

The new center plans to build a 1-megawatt demonstration grid on N.C. State's Centennial Campus, and a headquarters building for the center is expected to open in 2010.

"Solving the energy crisis is not just about generating renewable energy but developing the infrastructure needed for distribution," N.C. State Chancellor James Oblinger said in the statement. "As more renewable energy becomes available, NC State research will help deliver it to millions of homes and businesses.”

An Engineering Research Center award is one of the largest and most prestigious awards granted by NSF. They are designed to create university and industry partnerships in research and education that promote innovation, transform engineered systems, advance technology and produce engineering graduates who can creatively contribute to U.S. competitive advantage in a global economy.

In addition to research, the FREEDM Systems center will partner with 14 middle and high schools to give younger students and their teachers a chance to explore the research related to energy and power. It also will work with 18 state and local government organizations in North Carolina, Arizona, California, Florida, New York and Tennessee to stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation based on its research and technology.