South Park national lab teams with Carnegie Mellon on $4M power grid project

David Conti
| Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, 10:54 p.m.

A massive federal effort to improve the reliability, efficiency and security of the nation's electric grid will include several million dollars' worth of research in Western Pennsylvania.

The Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park is leading a $4 million project involving Carnegie Mellon University and other partners that will focus on developing magnetic alloys and semiconductors for connecting solar panels and storage batteries to the grid. It's one of 88 projects funded by $220 million that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced on Thursday as part of his department's grid modernization initiative.

“Our grid is an absolutely essential underpinning to an efficient operating of the economy,” said Lynn Orr, department undersecretary for science and energy.The project — led by the South Park lab, in cooperation with Carnegie Mellon, NASA and North Carolina State University — will look at technology that better allows for the use of solar panels and storage, said research scientist Paul Ohodnicki.

The lab also is part of a $6 million project with five other national labs to develop advanced sensors for monitoring transmission and distribution of power across the grid. The University of Pittsburgh is a partner in a $4 million project involving solar power simulations.

The projects are slated to be completed over three years. Officials at Carnegie Mellon and Pitt could not be reached.

Department of Energy officials touted the larger spending and a related research plan as necessary to ensure reliable operation of the grid. While in Pittsburgh last year to announce a separate agreement between the city and the South Park lab to develop microgrid technology, Moniz spoke of the need to improve systems that have been in use for decades.

The 14 national labs are working together and with outside partners to develop and test technology that can be used to monitor the grid, control the flow of electricity, design new systems, increase security and integrate power generation.

Several projects focus on energy storage, a key aspect of effectively using renewable sources such as solar and wind on the grid because they cannot always generate electricity.

Working them into the mix requires more high-tech connections that limit energy waste as power is transferred or converted between direct current solar panels and storage batteries and a grid that uses alternating current.

The South Park lab, NASA, CMU and N.C. State have experience working with magnetic alloys and semiconductors for that purpose, Ohodnicki said. Their project also will aim to build modular units that can be hooked up to either solar arrays or batteries.

“It allows for improved reliability and flexibility and being more secure,” he said.

The department plans to announce more projects in the coming weeks.

David Conti is assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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