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NC State Aims to Develop ‘Internet for Energy’ at New NSF Engineering Research Center

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today that North Carolina State University will lead a national research center that aims to revolutionize the nation’s power grid and speed renewable electric-energy technologies into every home and business.

The NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) Systems, to be headquartered on NC State’s Centennial Campus, will partner with universities, industry and national laboratories in 28 states and nine countries. The center will be supported by an initial five-year, $18.5 million grant from NSF with an additional $10 million in institutional support and industry membership fees. More than 65 utility companies, electrical equipment manufacturers, alternative energy start-ups and other established and emerging firms have committed to joining this global partnership.

The new center will develop technology that transforms the nation’s century-old, centralized power grid into an alternative-energy-friendly “smart grid” that can easily store and distribute energy produced from solar panels, wind farms, fuel cells and other energy sources. This “Internet for energy” will enable millions of users to generate their energy from renewable sources and sell excess energy to the power companies. Researchers envision consumers using this “plug-and-play” system anytime, from anywhere.

An ERC award is one of the largest and most prestigious awards granted by NSF. The FREEDM ERC is one of five new ERCs awarded by the NSF’s Generation Three ERC Program. The third-generation Engineering Research Centers build on the successes of the first and second generations of ERCs funded since 1985. They are designed to create university and industry partnerships in research and education that promote innovation, transform engineered systems, advance technology, and produce engineering graduates who can creatively contribute to U.S. competitive advantage in a global economy. The grant to NC State and its partners is a five-year commitment that is renewable for an additional five years. The award follows a two-year selection process by the federal agency.

Dr. Alex Huang, Progress Energy Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NC State, will be the center’s director. The research will begin immediately, with a new headquarters for the center scheduled to open in 2010 on NC State’s Centennial Campus.

“North Carolina State University works very hard at creating partnerships and collaborations that produce tangible results,” said Chancellor James Oblinger. “We applaud the collaborative spirit of Alex Huang’s work and believe the results that will come from this NSF center will deliver broad changes in our nation’s approach to energy. Solving the energy crisis is not just about generating renewable energy but developing the infrastructure needed for distribution. As more renewable energy becomes available, NC State research will help deliver it to millions of homes and businesses.”

Transforming the nation’s power grid is vitally important as alternative-energy technologies prepare to flood the marketplace. Center researchers foresee widespread adoption of plug-in hybrid cars over the next several years, for example, but today’s power grid would not be able to handle energy demand during peak charging times, such as when people return home from work in the evening. The smart grid developed at the center will also allow consumers to sell energy back to the power companies when demand is low, preparing the utilities for times when demand is greatest.

This new energy paradigm will speed the development of vehicles, appliances and other devices that can both store energy and send it to the grid. By merging advanced battery technology with windmills and solar collectors, the researchers will combine renewable energy production with electric energy storage in a network. The center’ s energy storage research will focus on storage technology with longer life.

Central to the research will be the development of a “green energy hub” that will power the center’s headquarters and other buildings on Centennial Campus. The one-megawatt grid will serve as a test-bed for the center’s research efforts and demonstrate the technology’s potential.

“Securing this center is a landmark achievement for the college and the university that will add significant resources and momentum to NC State’s energy research,” said Dr. Louis A. Martin-Vega, dean of the College of Engineering. “The technology developed at this center will distribute renewable energy on a large scale, helping to build a society based on green energy.”

Huang and other NC State researchers will collaborate with faculty at Arizona State University, Florida A&M University, Florida State University, Missouri University of Science and Technology, RWTH Aachen University in Germany and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Switzerland. Industry partners supporting the research will work directly with the center’s faculty, students and unique facilities, speeding innovations developed at the center to the commercial marketplace. The innovation process will be enhanced through the support of small start-up firms to explore product ideas, teaming with university students to give them first-hand experience in innovation and business start-ups. The ERC also will work with 18 state and local government organizations in North Carolina, Arizona, California, Florida, New York and Tennessee to stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation based on its research and technology.

Additionally, the center will feature an intensive education program, including a master’s degree program and an undergraduate concentration in renewable energy systems. Researchers have fostered partnerships with 14 middle and high schools to give younger students and their teachers a chance to explore the research related to energy and power.

“We are honored that NC State is leading this important research,” Huang said. “Work at this center will help prepare our country and the world to take full advantage of abundant renewable energy resources.”

Lynn Preston, a deputy division director at NSF and leader of the Engineering Research Centers Program, said, “NSF is delighted to welcome NC State and the FREEDM ERC to the ERC program. The unique vision of this ERC to enable the smooth inclusion of renewable energy sources into the power grid in a ‘plug-and-play’ mode will provide the knowledge and technology platforms the country needs to help reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. We look forward to FREEDM graduates joining the next generation of leaders and innovators in electrical power and renewable energy career fields. We expect that this topic will be of significant interest to pre-college students and stimulate their interests in pursuing engineering careers.”

For more information on the FREEDM Systems Center, visit its Web site at www.freedm.ncsu.edu.

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