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UC researchers working to develop a smarter grid

Someday most drivers will power their cars by plugging in. Home appliances will be networked wirelessly and automated to maximize their efficiency. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources will provide most of the country’s power.

But it can’t happen on the nation’s current electrical grid. A renewable energy–based system will require new technology to facilitate the large-scale transmission and storage of solar and wind power. As more electric cars hit the road, a new system is needed to handle all the motorists trying to charge up at the same time.

Researchers at University of California campuses and labs are working on a myriad of projects to develop and deploy systems to modernize the nation’s electrical system into one that relies on renewable energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The so-called smart grid is part of President Obama’s clean energy initiatives and is needed to implement Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for installing 12,000 megawatts of renewable power generation in California by 2020.

Much of the nation’s power system was designed more than 100 years ago and many of its parts are more than 50 years old.

“One of the major challenges we face and one of the reasons we need a smart grid is the introduction of renewable power,” said Jack Brouwer, lead researcher on the Irvine Smart Grid Demonstration Project, which is using campus housing at UC Irvine as a testing ground. “So, we need something that’s smarter than what we’re doing now.”

The current grid was built for consistent, one-way transmission of power from large generation centers into homes and businesses. Renewable energy sources don’t behave that way. They have variable loads that ebb and flow with the amount of sunshine or wind that generate them. The grid also can’t handle the influx of electric cars that’s expected in the near future.

“Now you have solar rooftops that essentially allow power to flow back to the grid,” said Rajit Gadh, director of the UCLA Smart Grid Energy Research Center. “The grid operation is not used to getting information back from the consumer.”

Gadh envisions homes in the future having appliances that can talk wirelessly to the electric grid and turn off during peak periods or draw from batteries that store excess power generated from the house’s solar panels. In the garage, there would be an electric charging and power storage station for cars. Neighbors could form a collective to offer power back to a utility.

“All these ideas we’re exploring, and one day I think they will happen,” said Gadh, who cautions that it could still take up to 25 years to update the country’s infrastructure to enable widespread use of these new technologies.

Gadh and other UC researchers are working to make this future come true. Among the numerous projects throughout the UC system, engineers and scientists at UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Irvine are utilizing their campuses as living labs for studies of smart grid technologies.

See Harry Mok’s full story on the UC Research website.

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