The Smart Grid Energy Research Center (SMERC) held a kickoff event last month celebrating the start of new research programs and partnerships in making a smart electrical grid into a reality.

The center, based at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, is funded with a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

While the electrical grid in the United States is very reliable, it is currently somewhat limited in its ability to incorporate new renewable energy sources; to effectively manage demand response; to sense and monitor trouble spots; and to repair itself.

With the advent of advanced wireless sensing, communication and control technologies, this is a great opportunity to explore incorporating those into the existing electrical grid. This smart grid would enable two-way communication along the entire grid to make it quickly and seamlessly send energy to where demand is greatest; while on the consumer end, powering down energy consuming products when they’re not in use, and even sending energy back into the grid.

The new research center has two main projects that it will initially focus on:

  • The first project, the Electric Vehicle Impact on the Grid, will research how to best incorporate electric vehicles into the grid. This project will use the campus as a real-life lab. Parking garages will be linked via wireless communications technologies and power could be returned to the grid from the vehicles, if needed.
  • Second, the Demand Response Research and Technology Demonstration through an integrated wireless network, researchers will monitor energy demand and use on the UCLA campus, using it as a virtual lab. For example, if a room is unoccupied, lights and heating/cooling would be automatically shut down via sensing and control devices.

The research in both will help lend new insight on how to make the electrical grid much more efficient.

SMERC’s director is Rajit Gadh, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. The kickoff event was held at the Edward K. Rice Conference Room in Boelter Hall. Representatives from project partners, the University of Southern California, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech; the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and the Los Angeles Mayor’s office were on hand. Also in attendance from UCLA were Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Scott Waugh, Vice Chancellor for Research Dr. James Economou, and Dean Vijay K. Dhir.

During his introductory remarks, Gadh pointed out that the smart grid is still in its infancy with much room for creative ideas. And on this project, it will be students doing the bulk of the research on the development of innovative smart grid concepts within the UCLA campus demonstrations.

“It is this student whom we need to get excited into working on the grid – and we do this in universities such as UCLA by giving the students a very loose leash, letting them intellectually meander, letting them apply what they have learnt about packing billions of transistors and thousands of sensors in a single device, and encouraging them to think out of the box,” Gadh said. “Every time I have done that, I have found the students have come back with wonders. Our job as faculty is to mentor and mold the creative minds.

Main Image: UCLA Engineering professor Rajit Gadh (first on the right side) and Dean Vijay K. Dhir (fourth from the right), pose for a group photo with partners from USC, LADWP, and JPL/Caltech.