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Smart Grid Project to Offer Hands-on Opportunities for Students

Graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin will play an integral part in the development of the power grid of the future for the Pecan Street Project, a leading sustainable energy research partnership between the University, Austin Energy, the City of Austin and high-tech companies, among others, that's aimed at reinventing how we get and use energy.

More than 20 researchers with UT, including UT ECE professors Suzanne Barber, Ross Baldick and Alexis Kwasinski, have been involved with the project since its inception in December 2008. Students have worked informally on the project, but their work will officially begin this fall thanks to a research award from the National Science Foundation that was granted this summer.

The Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) award will support research and educational programs at the University of Texas that focus on the development of sustainable energy grids, or smart grids. Unlike the traditional, utility-to-customer-energy system, smart grids use renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, and call for more efficient energy use, both of which are crucial in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving energy independence.

Since it began in 1998, the IGERT program has presented 215 awards to more than 100 universities around the nation. This year, 105 proposals were submitted to IGERT’s final review round and only 20 were selected for awards.

The $3.07 million award granted to UT will fund seven student fellowships this fall and a total of 25 over the course of the five-year program. During the program, graduate fellows will perform collaborative research for up to two years on cyber security, network management computation, distributed generation (using solar, wind, and fuel cells), power electronics and controls, energy storage (including electric cars, batteries, and thermal storage), energy efficient buildings, efficient appliances, and sensors for system performance and optimization.

The research will help develop the Pecan Street Project's testing ground, a 700-acre mix of homes and businesses known as the Mueller development in east Austin, into a green community whose smart grid could one day be used on a broader scale around the nation.

The University of Texas has been a critical partner in our effort since we began, and this additional resource and expertise will bolster the University's already significant commitment to our mission, Brewster McCracken, executive director of Pecan Street Project Inc., said of the partnership with UT.

Sustainable grids like that in the Pecan Street Project will be crucial to the future of power generation since traditional means for power, such as coal and natural gas, have contributed to increases in greenhouse gas emissions, said Ross Baldick, Leland Barclay Fellow in engineering at the UT's Cockrell School of Engineering and lead principal investigator on the award. But the tools needed to create a smart grid powered largely from solar, wind, and fuel cells do not yet exist. With the project, students, faculty, and others involved hope to change this.

To ensure we can continue developing a high standard of living through electricity supply, we're going to need to find ways to produce electric generation that reduces carbon dioxide, Baldick said. The electric industry has had to adjust to other issues in the past and we're going to have to adapt eventually to carbon dioxide emissions.

Participation in the Pecan Street Project will provide a hands-on, real-world experience for UT students but the program itself will also offer an interdisciplinary research and educational framework for which students will work.

During its duration, students will have a chance to develop a degree specialization in energy systems, an eight-course sequence that exposes students to a range of renewable energy aspects—from energy technology to energy policy—and is broad enough to accommodate an array of academic backgrounds.

In addition to research, IGERT fellows will be expected to create educational curricula, volunteer in the local community, complete at least one internship or international experience at a technical university in Germany, participate in a seminar series and attend skill training workshops.

Fellows will work alongside high school science and math teachers to develop course materials for UTeachEngineering, a national initiative funded by NSF to prepare educators to teach high school engineering. They will also be responsible for drafting content for a graduate level course, Grid of the Future, based on their research and educational modules produced during the program.

Fellows have not yet been selected, but UT faculty expect to make a decision by the end of September. Candidates should have an interest in interdisciplinary work, leadership skills and a strong academic background.

More about the Pecan Street Project:

The Pecan Street Project is headed by former Austin Councilman Brewster McCracken, who serves as its executive director, and by former Austin Energy General Manager Roger Duncan, who is known internationally for his efforts in renewable energy and serves as the project’s president.

In November, the project won $10.4 million in federal stimulus funds to create Mueller's smart grid.