Energy Planning for the Future

It has been more than a century since Thomas Edison, working from his famous research lab up the road from New Brunswick, laid the foundation for so much of the high tech-world we know today. The inventor of the record player and the light bulb would hardly recognize many of the critical systems that he helped to create and that we take for granted. Communication networks send and receive massive amounts of data in milliseconds. We listen to our music on tiny personal devices wherever we go. We slip our phones in our pockets and use them to connect with people and retrieve information in ways “The Wizard of Menlo Park” could hardly imagine. But when it comes to extraordinary advances to our power generation systems…not so much.   

School of Engineering Professor Mohsen Jafari believes that if Edison were alive today, he would certainly agree we are overdue for new energy initiatives—and that Rutgers is well positioned to take the lead in developing solutions.

“The world and the industrial sectors of our economy are coming to the understanding that we must find a better way to design and generate energy,” says Jafari, chairman of the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department (ISE) and a principal faculty member and research program coordinator at the Rutgers Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT).  “We need to educate the public and build the necessary technologies for this to happen.”

And that’s the problem Rutgers is planning to address. Energy systems that rely on huge, centralized generation stations and conventional distribution systems are often expensive, vulnerable to storms and can put nations like the United States at a significant competitive advantage while representing a potential threat to national security.

Rutgers vision is nothing less than remaking energy systems in much the same way that our communication and transportation systems have been overhauled over the last century. It’s no longer just about building more power lines and pipelines. At the macro level, we need to integrate these basic systems with advanced information technology, communication and security systems, while at the micro level we need to analyze energy usage in individual office buildings and homes. And we need highly trained professionals who understand how sophisticated systems work together.

Jafari and his colleagues are moving to address this need by introducing a new master's of engineering program on energy systems for the fall of 2016 and by expanding a new research laboratory--Laboratory for Energy Smart Systems (LESS)--to support this program and augment existing ones.

“Our multidisciplinary approach brings a unique perspective to this issue and is what will help to distinguish this program by bringing together years of research and industry experience in energy systems planning and control to build more resilient and sustainable energy systems,” says Jafari, who has helped to secure more than $20 million in research grants and serves as a consultant for many Fortune 500 companies and government agencies.

The master’s degree program will allow students from different engineering backgrounds to study a common core of courses in energy systems and will include an internship. Topics will range from smart grids, which use digital communications technology to respond to local changes in usage, to green transportation to energy storage. This interdisciplinary approach will help prepare students for jobs in this emerging field by giving them a broad background rather than a narrow focus in one of the more traditional engineering fields.

The new lab, to be housed in the Weeks Hall of Engineering when it opens in 2018, will be used for undergraduate teaching by several departments. It will also support graduate teaching as part of the Master of Engineering, as well as multidisciplinary research across the school.

The new laboratory is important because it will allow students and professors to examine issues in innovative ways. In fact, the new building itself will become a teaching tool for energy research and for conducting energy simulations.

For example, one of its features will be a miniature energy grid, an actual power system that duplicates the functioning of a conventional power grid but on a much smaller scale. The system will include actual solar panels, a wind turbine and fuel cell generating a few kilowatts of electrical power, and other systems such as those that convert energy from DC generated by the solar panels to AC power used in homes. Students can then test how these systems respond to different situations, something they would normally do only with sophisticated computer software.

In this way, researchers and students can test “smart grids” those that use computers and digital technology throughout a system to control and provide better reliability and improve energy efficiency. These are also known as “cyber-physical systems,” or CPS, and they could eventually produce billions in dollars in savings. One promising area is to build “zero-energy” buildings or an entire “net zero” community, where energy efficiencies mean that renewable energy systems can offset most energy consumption.

Already, the Laboratory for Energy Smart Systems (LESS) is working closely with industry, with federal agencies such as the Department of Energy and with local governments. The LESS laboratory will be a focus for a number of programs that already exist throughout the university, including the Rutgers Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT). LESS also focuses on cyber-physical systems in energy and manufacturing.

LESS brings together two distinct approaches: Distributed Energy Resources (DER) covers energy created by a variety of small, decentralized systems as opposed to conventional coal-fired or nuclear power plants, and Demand Side Management (DSM) covers efforts to reduce consumer demand for energy through financial incentives and education rather than increasing power generation to meet rising demand.

These initiatives bring together expertise in areas such as monitoring of energy assets, weather forecasting and environmental impacts, communication technology and analytics and energy storage research. They will allow Jafari and his colleagues to expand on current research and development projects.

One significant benefit is that the Rutgers program will combine theoretical study with practical experience. Indeed, energy industry needs skilled workers with this expertise, and major universities like Rutgers that are at the cutting edge of engineering and technology are in a position to train them.

“Industry is looking for students who learned the theory but also know how real-life systems work,” says Hana Godrich, assistant research professor. “You may learn how a circuit breaker works by doing simulations, but these simulations are limited. In the lab we can show students what real systems look like in practice.”

“There are many companies that are looking for students who are skilled in this interdisciplinary approach,” says Dunbar Birnie, professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering Department, and an expert in the latest battery technology and solar-powered vehicles.

In addition, the combination of the new master’s program and the new research laboratory is expected to generate more interest among students in a field of study that will only become more important for the next generation. Over the last several years, there has already been a steady increase, with some classes having doubled in size, according to Kimberly Cook-Chennault, associate professor, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

In this way, Rutgers will be creating another novel form of power: brain power.