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Building the 'smart grid'

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A $20 million grant will allow UCLA experts to demonstrate several ways of integrating renewable energy into the nation's coal-based power grid. Wireless sensors could help buildings respond automatically to power fluctuations.
If everyone in Los Angeles put solar panels on their roofs, plugged electric cars into their garages and used smart power-meters today, something interesting would happen.
 
The electric grid would collapse.
 
L.A.'s aging grid simply isn't stable enough to handle environmentalism from everyone, but policy-makers are eager to make that green future feasible. Now, a $60-million stimulus grant from the federal Department of Energy to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), plus $60 million in matching funds from the LADWP, will help local academic powerhouses create a "smart grid" that will take the existing grid to the next level.
 
UCLA, USC and CalTech/JPL are partnering with the LADWP in a smart grid demonstration project. At UCLA, researchers will create smart climate-control systems, develop ways for consumers to respond to minute-by-minute energy fluctuations, use electric cars to stabilize the grid and more.
 
UCLA is expected to receive $20.6 million from the LADWP over five years to build and test smart-grid technology. Rajit Gadh, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor specializing in wireless smart grid technology, will direct the project, working with about three dozen UCLA professors, researchers, students and post-docs.
 
"We have this electrical grid that we need, and we can't rip it out, but it's not compatible with renewable energy right now," Gadh said. But by building layers of technology on top of the existing grid, the existing grid can become compatible, Gadh said. "We're going to show what can be done, and the benefits to the consumer, the utility companies, the economy and the environment."
 
With Gadh in the lead, professors and researchers from UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Institute of the Environment and the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences will become the founding members of a new UCLA Smart Grid Energy Research Center.
 
"The new Smart Grid Energy Research Center will benefit immensely from Professor Gadh's vision, dedication and leadership," said Engineering Dean Vijay K. Dhir. "Innovative smart technologies developed by the center could lead to major breakthroughs for power system infrastructure and reliability and ultimately serve as a model to the rest of the nation."
 
Gadh envisions electric cars that slurp energy into their batteries overnight when power production is cheap, then dispense it into homes and offices during the day when electricity demand is high. The new smart grid center will start by retrofitting a UCLA building with wireless sensors to create complex smart power-meters, Gadh said. He described sensors that would detect how many people are in each room, enabling the building to decide which rooms needed air conditioning, for example.
 
The sensors would also be linked to power utilities so they could react to fluctuations in energy availability. If demand surged and prices increased on a hot summer day, the building would be capable of switching to inexpensive stored battery power from an electric car fleet, Gadh said. Those intelligent sensors could also be used at home, connecting all of a building's electronics to smart sensors, he added.
 
"Professor Gadh has been at the forefront of developing the breakthrough technology necessary for realizing the vision of a robust deployment of smart grid technologies on a national scale," said UCLA's Vice Chancellor of Research, Roberto Peccei. "We are thrilled about the creation of a new Smart Grid Energy Research Center."
 
UCLA researchers have already developed much of the technology that they will put to use for this project, Gadh said, and the demonstration grant will allow them to put their designs to the test. He anticipates bringing in Bruins from other disciplines, such as behavioral science, economics, public policy and business, to look at the technology from other perspectives, addressing such questions as, “Will customers have enough incentives to use it?” and “Does it pose any economic or political barriers?”
 
The Smart Grid Energy Research Center (SMERC) will also develop ways for the LADWP to measure how much energy a building is using, even when the building doesn't have its own meter. Wireless sensors will allow SMERC's demonstration projects to install new technology without expensive, intrusive renovations of aging buildings, Gadh noted.
 
The smart grid project is one component of UCLA's growing role in clean technology, noted Michael Swords, executive director of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. UCLA is a founding member of CleanTech Los Angeles, a consortium of universities and local and government agencies working together to make the city a clean-tech capital.
 
"People still think of Los Angeles as an entertainment industry or aerospace city," Swords said. "We want them to think of us as a clean-tech center."
 
SMERC will set up a testing facility to integrate electric vehicles into the electric grid. "Right now, cars are not viewed as energy storage devices,” Swords said, “but these batteries can not only take energy from the electric grid, but also feed it back in. That gives the grid more energy to rely on and people credit on their power bills."
 
Swords thinks the SMERC demos could produce commercial products very soon.
 
"I think about a year and a half from now you'll start to hear major announcements of breakthroughs in technology and see amazing stuff on the market," he said. "But the system-level stuff, with smart meters managing the grid, is a few years off."
 
While talking about the five years SMERC has to explore smart grid technology, Gadh gazes into the distance as if seeing all of UCLA's research come to life.
 
"The whole idea is to make the grid more responsive, robust, intelligent and secure," Gadh said. "In five years, we will just have scratched the surface."