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Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center

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NSF Engineering Research Center for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) Systems  (North Carolina State University)

Research Focus and Anticipated Benefits

Consumers know all too well the inconvenience, expense and discomfort of a power failure in the aftermath of a severe thunderstorm, or the disturbances that result from brownouts during an extended heat wave. In our energy-hungry society, it can be unnerving even when the lights start to flicker. Help is on the way. So-called smart transformers now under development could transform the power grid in ways that will make power more reliable, cost-efficient and environmentally friendly, allowing consumers to both store and generate energy in addition to using it.

The FREEDM (Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management) Systems Center at North Carolina State University is developing the smart solid state transformers. They will be used to improve power quality and reliability and bring more renewable energy to the electricity grid.

The nation’s power grid currently operates one way—power flows from the utility to the consumer--and traditional transformers simply change voltage from one level to another. But smart transformers, based on power semiconductor switches, are more versatile. Not only can they change voltage levels, but also can effectively control the power flow in both directions. Furthermore, they are less vulnerable to such issues as flickers and momentary voltage collapse.

With communication capability and powerful software embedded, they can communicate with each other and with the rest of the grid, making them intelligent gateways for connecting not only just electric loads, but also renewable energy generators and energy storage devices. They can monitor and control power and energy consumption, and also can change residential supply voltage and frequency as needed in response to load demand.

Most importantly, these transformers will likely change the very nature of how the country uses power.  Today, we just consume electricity,” said Alex Huang, director of the FREEDM, in June 2011. “With these, consumers can buy generating devices and storage devices, and your electric vehicle will be one of those storage devices.  The smart transformers enable easier integration of generating and storage devices, you just plug and play. Today, if you want to do this, it is not feasible. It requires a lot of permissions and paper work to integrate these devices. Furthermore, the grid will not be stable if we have a lot of these devices without smart control.”

This means that consumers ultimately will be able to hook up a solar panel or electric car to the grid, charging electric vehicles more conveniently and economically, making them a good investment, and thus promoting the use of cleaner energy sources.

MIT’s Technology Review recently listed the FREEDM Systems Center’s smart transformers among the world’s 10 most important emerging technologies. 

Education & Outreach

The FREEDM Systems Center College Education Program was designed to educate a new generation of engineers and scientists to research electric power systems based on renewable energy. Creating a pipeline of future leaders and innovators through the development of new academic courses / degree programs at both undergraduate and graduate levels is a key FREEDM Systems Center goal. The Center Pre-college Education program develops this pipeline notion through work with middle and high school teachers and students.

Education Directors at partner universities coordinate a network of education programs strategically planned to recruit and retain a diverse group of students who participate in Center-sponsored degree programs, research experiences, fellowships, and international collaborations.

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