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Developing a Low-voltage Microgrid for Experiments in Renewable Energy Distribution

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Division for Experimentation & Lab-oriented Studies Technical Session 2

Tagged Division

Experimentation and Laboratory-Oriented Studies

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Paper Authors


Harry Courtney Powell University of Virginia

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Harry Powell is an Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Virginia. After receiving a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering in1978 he was an active research and design engineer, focusing on automation, embedded systems, remote control, and electronic/mechanical co-design techniques, holding 16 patents in these areas. Returning to academia, he earned a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2011 at the University of Virginia. His current research interests include machine learning, embedded systems, electrical power systems, and engineering education.

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Brian Hayt National Instruments

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Brian Hayt is a product marketing manager for National Instruments specializing in the field of teaching electrical engineering. Brian works with electrical engineering professors globally to discuss and implement new teaching methodologies, attempting to associate every theoretical concept to a real experiment to better drive the success of engineering students entering the workspace.
Brian has a background in electrical engineering with a recent bachelor of science from Case Western Reserve University.
Outside of work, Brian has a passion for making and makerspaces. Advocating for and often discussing making sure a wealth of tools and information are constantly available to students and hobbyists who just want to create something interesting.

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Among the top engineering challenges today are those related to integrating renewable energy into the power grid efficiently and reliably; indeed, the economic development and deployment of solar energy is one of the NAE Grand Challenges. While many universities offer classes in renewable energy generation, i.e. wind and photovoltaics, the enormous breadth of a modern electrical curriculum leaves little room to expose students to the issues of grid integration. Compounding this problem, the enabling technologies for renewable integration, embedded computing, controls, and power electronics, are seldom taught within a context in which their applicability to energy production and distribution is brought to light. Furthermore, many university level electrical energy conversion courses are taught in a traditional lecture-lab dichotomy approach and cover topics limited to transformers and rotary machines. While comprehension of these foundational topics is still essential, it is increasingly important to expose students to the broader range of concepts relevant to the power grid of the future and to do so within a context appropriate for either a stand-alone course or as an enhanced topic in an existing traditional course. Our approach connects topics in power electronics, energy conversion, and controls in the form of an expandable and scalable low-voltage microgrid. The goal is to expose students to generation, grid, and distribution related topics early in a power curriculum, enhancing understanding of both renewable energy grid integration as well as conventional generation. We give students insight into the various components of a grid as well as the diverse engineering skills needed to ensure significant penetration of renewable energy into the overall power structure. Implementation of this microgrid involves a plurality of low-voltage 3-phase inverters implemented with programmable controllers. These inverters can be programmed such that they may behave as a conventional energy source, i.e., a stable coal-fired power plant, as an intermittent renewable source, energy storage devices, or as several types of loads. Additionally, the inverters may be connected with interposing lumped-element model transmission lines and transformers simulating substations and local distribution networks, allowing expanding the range of experiments to include power grids of arbitrary complexity. Using a programmable controller allows for easy modifications to the depth of understanding of the underlying concepts involved. For example, we may hide the more advanced controls aspects of the underlying algorithms in an introductory course, or expose successive levels of complexity, allowing instructors to easily adapt the configurations as appropriate for their course sequences. We present several representative experiments and example homework and test problems as well as suggested student projects to aid instructors in course start-up and merging the new material into existing coursework. This low-voltage microgrid allows students to develop an intuitive grasp of concepts that were largely theoretical or disconnected when presented in a purely lecture-oriented context. Additionally, these devices are simple, inexpensive, and open source, encouraging further development in the energy and power conversion community.

Powell, H. C., & Hayt, B. (2018, June), Developing a Low-voltage Microgrid for Experiments in Renewable Energy Distribution Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30291

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