South Dakota Mines Professor Wins NSF Grant to Study Patterns for Next-Generation Smart Grid

Posted on: August 1, 2023   |   Categories: Announcements, News & Updates
South Dakota Mines Dr Long Zhao

This piece by South Dakota Mines was published August 1.

Photo: Dr. Long Zhao, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and the director of the Smart Grid and Energy Research Lab at South Dakota Mines, is working on new ways to incorporate human behavior patterns into the design of next generation energy grids.

The development of a “smart grid” is a hot topic in the energy industry. The basic idea is that modern technologies can assist in routing electricity efficiently and economically from the power being generated to the areas where it’s in demand. Smart grids enable power from multiple sources, such as wind farms, rooftop solar panels, hydroelectric dams and large coal-fired power plants. A part of the smart grid is a little like a set of traffic signals that help move power where and when it’s needed; more power can be generated and distributed when demand is high and electricity flow can be reduced or sent into next-generation storage devices when demand is low.

Long Zhao, Ph.D., assistant professor of electrical engineering and the director of the Smart Grid and Energy Research Lab at South Dakota Mines, says there is a great deal of effort underway right now to build the technology and infrastructure needed to run smart grids, but he says one thing is missing from current research. “We need to study the human factor. The most important part of the equation is people, and we are trying to understand human behavior to help build the most robust and fully functional smart grid models,” Zhao says.

The National Science Foundation is funding Zhao’s research with a grant totaling $198,740 over the next two years. The research will analyze systemwide data to better understand members’ needs.

Zhao gives credit to his partners at West River Electric Association (WREA) and Elevate Rapid City. He says the support from WREA and Elevate Rapid City is immensely valuable and helps all organizations advance their initiatives.

“The cooperation of our partners is really essential here for the success of this research. If we can understand people’s patterns of electricity use, we can build better systems to meet their needs and save them money. This kind of work has the potential to save an average power company or utility provider millions per year,” he says.

“With the rapid growth of data in the utility space, having the resources at Mines is immensely valuable for advancing our understanding of WREA’s distribution system,” says Sean Bestgen the lead power engineer at WREA and a Mines alumnus. “This study will not only help the Cooperative save money but also contribute to WREA’s spirit of innovation.”

Zhao is collaborating with fellow researcher Zhiyong Yang, Ph.D., the department chair of marketing at Miami University who is helping translate the human behavioral data in this study.

“We understand multiple factors can influence human behavior and the demand for electricity and this study will help us build better infrastructure in the future,” says Zhao.

He says the research will include surveys of members to match data trends with members’ thoughts on their own energy usage patterns. He hopes the research will give the group a peak into understanding of how consumer trends might change as rooftop solar grows. He says this decentralized system of power generation turns the average energy consumer into a producer of electricity. “Rather than consumers we call them ‘prosumers,’ as they are both producers and consumers of electricity.”

In some parts of the United States and in other countries, this decentralized system of energy generation is increasing the resiliency of the grid to extreme conditions.

Zhao says modeling human behavior so this data can be added to the future design of new smart grids, rooftop solar and other decentralized renewable energy could become even more affordable, efficient and environmentally sustainable.

He adds that this research would not be possible without earlier funding from the South Dakota Board of Regents though a competitive research grant. Zhao add that university support though the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science has also been essential in this success.