Writer: Linda Fresques, 575-646-7416, firstname.lastname@example.org
Olga Lavrova, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at New Mexico State University, is working to find ways to upgrade our aging power grid and deliver electricity more reliably. Her goal is to develop devices that work with renewable sources of energy and weather minor disruptions as well as more catastrophic events, such as hurricanes.
“Some of this infrastructure has been built in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so there is a need to bring it to modern days and look at what are the new electronic devices, power converting devices and control devices that are needed on an electrical grid,” Lavrova said.
“What we’re seeing is that between an electrical grid being designed almost a hundred years ago and all the new devices like solar power on our houses and wind power coming online, there is a need to change how the electric grid manages delivery of electricity to customers,” Lavrova said. “An additional danger that we have to face is the fact that several of the severe weather events, like hurricane Maria, Katrina, Sandy, have really been introducing a lot of damage to the electrical grid and therefore, there is a high chance of prolonged power outage after every severe weather event. This may lead to loss of productivity for businesses or even loss of lives, if power is not restored in a short amount of time.”
Lavrova and her colleagues are looking at the problem from all levels. Starting with the very small residential devices, such as smart inverters or smart meters that interact with large power generation plants such as Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona and the Four Corners Generating Station in northern New Mexico.
“We are looking at all aspects of this starting from device design all the way to planning, controls and working with local utilities and governments to look at the regulations and policies that are needed to help us upgrade our electrical grid,” Lavrova said.
One of Lavrova’s current projects is designing an inverter, a device that converts direct current (DC) power generated by a solar panel or energy storage devices into alternating current (AC) power and then delivers that power to the electric grid or a microgrid.
This research is being conducted in collaboration with Sandia National Laboratories as part of the U.S. Department of Energy Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium Resilient Distribution Systems program.
“Our specific design challenge for this program is to make the inverter more robust and be able to sustain some of the interruptions, like intermittent power, interruptions in terms of voltage or current, such that the inverter can ride through some of those intermittent electric grid events and therefore be more robust in terms of delivering power to consumers, to us as regular residential customers in our homes, so that we do not experience a power outage,” Lavrova said.
She and postdoctoral researcher Nataraj Pragallapati are looking at electric circuit design elements and control mechanisms in the inverter that need to be modified so that it is more robust and can provide power for longer periods of time, as well as how to ensure that these devices work well with our current electric grid. Some of these devices are already being tested in prototype and pilot installations.
“This is exactly where collaboration with Sandia is great,” Lavrova said. “Some of the design changes that we suggest to implement for this inverter, they can do a pilot installation to see how this works in real life, and they can deploy these converters to places like Puerto Rico or other affected areas very quickly.”
Other pilot installations and research projects are ongoing with El Paso Electric, PNM and other utilities across the nation and some are already working. “Maybe we just don’t notice new devices working on the grid, because we feel like electricity is always there,” Lavrova said.
Lavrova’s research group consists of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students. They are working on this project, as well as other projects, including microgrid design, inverter-level designs, circuit-level design, controls and cybersecurity. This research is done in collaboration with many departments at NMSU, as well as the University of New Mexico. In addition to Sandia National Laboratories, Lavrova also collaborates with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.