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Engineers Research Grid Upgrades to Handle More DC Power

PowerLines at sunset (Brookhaven National Lab)

(Brookhaven National Lab)

Engineers at University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania have begun research on upgrades needed in the U.S. electrical grid to better integrate direct current (DC) power in an infrastructure designed for alternating current (AC). Funding for the project includes a recent $600,000 support grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority, as well as industry support from ABB Inc. and Eaton Corporation.

Electricity in the United States is generated, transported, and delivered by alternating current. Modern electronic devices — e.g., computers and high-def televisions — renewable power resources, and electric vehicles, however, take or generate direct current, thus the AC/DC converter found on most consumer electronics.

Lead researcher on the project and director of the school’s Power and Energy Initiative Gregory Reed explains that alternating current can be delivered over long distances from a central power plant and works fine in early industrial motors. But AC transmission requires more infrastructure and loses more energy in transmission than DC power.

DC delivers electricity directly through electronic circuitry without the need for transformers and triple-wire steel towers required by AC. Plus, DC can be transferred over long distances with far less loss and at higher capacities, significant benefits in an increasingly spread-out society.

Reed and his team are finding out what it takes to better integrate DC into the U.S.’s AC-dominated grid at the transport stage. The team has acquired the same simulator programs that are standard tools in the industry for designing and analyzing power transmission systems: a full, professional version of the Power System Simulator for Engineering provided to the University by Siemens Energy Inc.

By employing the same simulation technology used to design and engineer electricity grids, the researchers will model an expanded power grid that delivers electricity from the power plant to homes and businesses with less infrastructure and a more reliable and efficient flow of electricity. This improved infrastructure would not only conserve electricity, but is also expected to make it easier to tap into renewable resources, particularly solar and wind power, which are typically generated in remote locations far from consumers.

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