In this episode of Season 1, our guest is Dr. Anne Kimber who is the Executive Director of the Electric Power Research Center (EPRC) in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECpE) at Iowa State University (ISU). Here, we talk about EPRC’s research in electric power systems, including the Center’s research projects, industry partners, and facilities available for student training in this area. This episode was conceptualized, recorded, edited, and produced by Santosh Pandey from the ECpE Department of Iowa State University. The communications and digital hosting was handled by Sara Harris from the ISU ECpE Department. The music was provided by Coma-Media from Pixabay (Track Title: Piano Ambience Relax).
Welcome to our ECPE podcast series where we talk about exciting activities within our department. I'm your host Santosh Pandey. Our guest today is Dr. Anne Kimber, who is the Director of Electric Power Research Center (EPRC) in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University. Dr. Kimber, thank you for joining our listeners today. We want to talk about the EPRC and its vital role in advancing research and education in the area of electric power systems to start with. Could you talk about the history of EPRC when and how was the center created? Thanks very much for having me today. It's a real pleasure to talk about the center and my work within it. The EPRC was actually started in 1963, which seems like a very long time ago. Now it's our 59th year and it was started by two famous professors. And I mean, like really big time, famous professors in power engineering, Aziz Fawad and Paul Anderson. And they basically changed the whole way we model power systems in this country. So they had a huge influence on development of the power industry, but the idea was to focus on advancing research and graduate education in electric power systems and to strengthen our ties with industry. So we're applied research center. What is the current organization of the EPRC? How many faculty members and industry members are there? The current organization of the EPRC is that we have 10 industry members and we have about, depending on how we count them on any particular day between seven and maybe 30 professors who are affiliated with our center. The industry members include two utilities: That's Alliant Energy and MidAmerican energy. We have a for-profit transmission-only company, so they just build and operate transmission. That's the International Transmission Company. We have an organization that runs the grid in most of Iowa. That's the Mid-Continent Independent System Operator. We have three generation and transmission cooperatives. So those are owned by their members and that's central Iowa power cooperative, Corn Belt Power Cooperative, and the Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative. We have two municipal utilities. So those are city-owned utilities. That's the City of Ames where we are and the Cedar Falls Utilities - more in central Iowa. And then we have a brand new member. That's actually a manufacturer of smart grid equipment. I'm just gonna say a little bit about them because if you ask them what they do, they might say, well, we make smart extension cords, but what they're really doing is electrifying giant port facilities, like for the port of Los Angeles, to be able to reduce the emissions of all those diesel generators that are powering those cranes. So they're gonna be electrified now. So they're dealing with really interesting electrification problems as well. I also wanted to mention that we have a kind of a core faculty of seven professors in electrical engineering, Dr. AjJarapu, Dr. Hu, Dr. Dobson, Dr. Govindarasu, Dr. McCalley, Dr. Villegas and Dr. Wang. We work not only with the seven core faculty members in electrical engineering, but we also work with mechanical engineering professors, civil engineering, material, science economics, and even lately a beekeeper and a horticulture faculty, um, because we're working on developing pollinator habitats associated with solar array. So our whole purpose of our center is to try to build broad research partnerships. And, um, we have research collaborations not only with our 10 industry members, but with other utilities as well. Um, such as Algon municipal utilities in north central, Iowa and Mako valley electric cooperative. In addition to Alliant mid, um, three generation and transmission cooperatives, two a for profit transmission company, and one of the organizations that runs the grid in the Midwest, that's the Midwest independent system operator. So what are some of the examples of research projects performed by ISU faculty and industry members in the center? So I have to tell you, the research has changed drastically over the years. You can imagine that before the rise of distributed generation, that our research program looked very different, but as early as 1972, we were studying the potential for wind power in Iowa. And I'm very proud of that, but these days we're focusing on. So I'm gonna list off several of these. And, uh, I hope that when you and your listeners hear these, they'll think, wow, this is really cool stuff. So one of them is, um, the state of health of batteries. We're working with a professor who comes from almost a medical electronics background, um, batteries for pacemakers. You don't wanna have to replace those very often. You really need to know what the state of health of those batteries is. But now imagine all the electric vehicle batteries, and they're gonna come out of cars because they're not gonna be quite good enough for cars anymore, but they're still gonna have a lot of useful life in them. But how do you figure out exactly how much useful life there's a huge need for assessing that quickly and cheaply so that we could use those in second life power applications? So that's one area that we're funding with the Iowa energy center. Another one is transmission planning to incorporate huge quantities and renewable energy from production sites where nobody lives sometimes to sites where a lot of people live, the, the loads we have to serve. So Dr. McCalley has been working with a broad team of industry experts to plan a high voltage DC transmission macro grid. That's a long running project that has huge potential impact. Another really important area of research is advanced inverter controls. Okay. So that sounds okay. So what is even that mm-hmm <affirmative>, but all these new power sources are DC. So you have, but we have an AC alternating current grid. So you have to create alternating current using power inverters. And sometimes those signals are not very beautiful to look at, but we need to have better controls, much better controls in order to make all these systems work together. And they have to be able to talk to each other and coordinate . So that's the area of Dr. Hugo VA's research, and that's critically important if we're gonna have all these renewable sources all over the place. So another area that I'm very proud of, the EPRC helped to fund was an important study by Alok Barati, who's now at Pacific Northwest national lab. And he and Dr. AjJarapu developed a real breakthrough in the co simulation of high voltage transmission systems with low voltage distribution systems. They made big advances in the ability to understand how the operation of the distribution system with a lot of renewable generation operation of the transmission system. Now it used to be, we thought it didn't really matter what was happening in the distribution system that kind of ended at the substation transformer. We don't think that way anymore. And that's partly because of, uh, Dr. Bar's research and people are taking those research results. And I'm saying people who run big grids and they're changing their system models, it's a big contribution to the field. So I'm very proud of that. Another big idea that we're working on is developing more resilient power grids that are less likely to fail during natural or manmade disasters, and can also be more quickly restored after a disaster. So this is a huge topic. This of increasing importance with climate change, part of that is increasing interest and demonstration of microgrids as part of that resiliency solution. And we at Iowa state have developed a mobile plug and play microgrid as a demonstration of solar plus battery systems that could be deployed quickly to provide emergency power for critical loads. And that was funded by the Iowa economic development authority with federal funds. We're working with the Iowa army national guard, a solar company, Power Film, and a solar developer sun crate on that project. So we actually built this. We've been demonstrating it all over Iowa, kind of an interesting hands on project. I'm gonna mention three more civil engineering and architecture faculty colleagues, uh, we're developing toolkits to define better rural housing that would benefit most from energy efficiency improvements. That's an electrical engineering project because we're actually using meter data to help predict which kinds of houses are using more energy than you would expect for their particular housing situation. We're working with four city-owned utilities on that project, Ames, Algona, Bloomfield, and Cedar Falls. And that's another project that's funded by the Iowa energy center. There's so many interesting projects. I can take the whole day, but I wanna mention one really strange one. And that is, we've been modeling the impact of solar storms on Iowa Midwest transmission systems. This is interesting work. That's the work of Dr. McCalley and one of his students, Rishi Sharma. So here's the weird thing. The impact of solar storms on transmission is affected by the underlying geology of the region. And Iowa is hard to model because deep down and I'm talking 2200 feet below the surface. There's a mid continent rift that came about 1.1 billion years ago. And it's weird to think that the geology below the surface affects whether our power systems are vulnerable to solar storms, what a crazy project. Anyway. So that was one of our EPRC projects. And another one I'm just gonna mention briefly is that we have also worked with the Ames lab and Professor Anderson from materials engineering to develop new transmission conductor materials. And that was an EPRC funded project. So hopefully that gives you some breadth of what we do. Could you comment on the nature of collaboration with the industry partners within EPRC in particular, are there activities for engaging the industry partners such as by having regular meetings, technology, demonstrations, and So we're very fortunate EPRC to have good and growing collaborations with our industry partners. We meet formally twice a year. So our next meeting is in three weeks actually. And at that meeting, we jointly select research to fund. That means that all the utilities, no matter what kind they are, whether they're investor owned, city owned, rural electric cooperative member owned, we all agree on what's the most important stuff to do. I should mention that the industry funding for EPRC is intended to fund graduate students. So the professors basically contribute their time on these projects to guide the students. I think it's a great model. We're also fortunate that industry is interested in working with us on federal and state grants. And they often provide letters of support. They might provide data or system models, and they give us feedback on the project as industry advisors. So they kind of keep us on the state and narrow about what we're trying to do. What facilities are available within the EPRC to support the research and energy power systems and how can undergraduate and graduate students get involved with the center's research and have access to the research facilities. So we have an EPRC website. I mentioned that because that's the easiest way to get in touch with us, or they can email me my, my emails on the website and next to my office door. A lot of what we do is modeling. So that's fairly easy. We have IEEE models that we can inject power in and study power flows. We also do have data from utilities that we can also model and analyze. In addition to that, um, there's a lab. I mentioned this one lab that's run by Hugo Villegas that has equipment for power system experimentation using RTDs. These are real time digital simulators. So that's actually high voltage equipment that you can be trained on using. Hugo Villegas is not the only one who has an RTDs, Dr. Ajjarapu has one as well. And then there's a whole cyber power lab. That's run by Dr. Manimaran. That's looking at cyber security - basically hacking of the grid because a lot of fun if you're not doing it in real life, so we can actually do training exercises on good impacts from various kinds of malicious attacks. So I guess one challenge in building better predictive models for energy grid lies in access to field data. So what infrastructure is in place for model in real world data, be it in data, access, data, storage, validation, or testing. Again, we've been fortunate to work with several utilities that have provided their actual real meter data and parts of their system models under confidentiality agreements. We're very concerned about protecting this data, both from the industry's point of view and from Iowa state side, too. Having that data has been of huge value to us in making advances, for example, especially in the work that I spoke of earlier of co simulation systems, and honestly, having access to data is the gold of our research. What do you dealing with data? How do you address data ownership, data privacy, data security, especially when you're working with industry partners. So typically, um, you know, they're kind of evolving standards on data privacy, but the way we've been dealing with it is first of all, to tell the utilities to anonymize their data, let's really be careful as we start this process. So for example, if we're looking at customer meter consumption data stuff, that's never tied to a particular customer's name. We may need the address, but it's not tied to an actual account identifier number like that. If we're going to publish this data. And of course for academics, we need to, we anonymize the data further by aggregating it, or we re-constitute the system. So it's not identifiable for small utilities. This is a huge issue because small utilities may have only a few industrial customers that could really be identified. So you've gotta be super careful about this kind of stuff. These confidentiality agreements often expire after a certain time. So the data's not always, you know, and there's a requirement to destroy the data. After a certain time. Does the center also provide opportunities to collaborate with national labs, working in electric power systems, wind energy, solar energy, and so on. And could you name some of the leading national labs that have collaborated with the center? So I'm only gonna speak for EPRC because the faculty may be working with other national labs that I'm not aware of, but we work with the Pacific Northwest national lab, Argonne national lab, the national renewable energy lab, Idaho national labs, Sandia national labs. And of course the Ames lab, right on campus. We have formal agreements with PNNL that's specific Northwest national lab and Idaho national labs. We can actually work with them pretty closely to have our students do internships our lab. And I wanna mention that one of the great things about PhD program in power engineering is the opportunity to do internships -not only at national labs, but also with utilities abroad. There's, there's just a lot of potential here. Yeah. The national lab collaborators are, are just, they're just great. It's like bringing a huge, additional set of experts and the utilities really just Iowa state, but you've got this whole area of federal funding and research that's available to you. Are there also research labs at the international level, from different countries that are very competitive to the labs that are within the US? There are some. I'm not gonna remember all the names of them, but there are some famous international labs that we have worked with. And we publish in international journals as, I mean, IEEE is one set, but there are others in Europe. Back before COVID, it was more common to send students abroad. For example, we have had a very strong wind program here. We would send students to work in Denmark where there's a big wind research program. There's a famous transmission developer in France RTE that we've also worked with. So yeah, it's, it's global. So what kind of jobs and career paths are chosen by students graduating from EPRC related research projects and what skillsets are being sought by our graduating students to get hired in electric power and So I'd say that right now in power engineering, the opportunities are limited only by our own imagination limits power engineering right now is a huge consequence to the world. You can say that about everything, but honestly, I think, providing renewable resilient solutions is of such fundamental importance. So our students go on to national labs, they go to utilities all over the US and internationally. Um, they go to regional transmission organizations that run the grid, or they may go to big companies that are developing the hardware, the systems that we depend on - like Tesla, General Electric, Siemens are some. And there are gonna be new companies and solutions like all the companies right now that are developing these advanced inverters that we need. So crucially. Um, so I think that the sky is the limit here. The skillset, I think, in electrical engineering is fundamentally applied mathematics. You gotta be strong and applied mathematics. Statistics are also really important. I think you have to be able to model and not be afraid to up with interesting formulations of these problems. So I think the tools, the skill sets, those skill sets are readily available at Iowa state. And then I think to have some fundamental knowledge, like we've been talking about with EPRC of how utilities actually approach the world, what their bottom lines are, how they work within their regulated environment is an can bring to students that they might not otherwise learn. So for students who want to get involved in research projects through the E PRC, what would you suggest is the best approach for them? How would they approach the faculty and the graduate students to work in this area? So, honestly, I think for students, this is a scary thing to say, but what you got to do is you got to contact these professors, knock on their door. You know, a lot of them - I see are there early in the morning, and they're still there at six o'clock at night working away or they're, they're available by email. I've met some of the coolest students who just walked into my office and said - I want to do something in renewable energy. Can you help me get started? And they go on and several of them are now getting their PhDs. You just gotta get started. And I think as a young person, it's scary to go meet with somebody and ask to do something that you don't actually know anything about, but there really is no other way, you just gotta do it. So do you have any final word of advice for our students or faculty in different areas who also want to participate in all these activities of the center? Well, I think our ability to form strong collaborations, wide collaborations, as well as deep ones is, is really growing. I think the utilities are themselves changing in their focus. So I just encourage us to talk more. And I have to say that it's actually just very interesting and fun and inspiring to work in this field because it does affect so many people's lives. The challenges are much bigger than any one person can solve. So it's a great chance to work together, and we just have to keep chipping away at this and things grow from small seeds that E P RRC plants. I like to say that. And I think the other professors would say that EPRC provides the seeds that gets the research started and then the federal labs and the state funding agencies really like to see that the utilities and the university has already invested some resources into starting out to study your problem and that we can use that leverage to, to get much bigger projects. That really make a big difference. Well, that's great. Thank you so much for our discussions today. We learned valuable information about the EPRC at Iowa State University. Thank you again. Thanks so much for having me. Thank you.