Research Magazine- Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science - The University of Texas at Dallas

IoT Solutions for Power Systems Applications

IoT Solutions for Power Systems Applications

In the midst of a scorching North Texas summer, losing air conditioning even briefly presents a crisis. With extreme temperatures or natural disasters leading to power outages, researchers at UT Dallas are devising novel ways to manage power and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) applications.

“Millions of A/C units run at once,” said Dr. Babak Fahimi, professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Jonsson School. “They work at a fixed speed, regardless of humidity, temperature, ambient conditions and health of the motor. And our traditional power grid can’t always keep up.”

Fahimi and researchers at the Renewable Energy and Vehicular Technology (REVT) Lab previously created a multi-port power electronic interface (MPEI) to allow efficient use of multiple renewable sources of energy. Today, he and PhD student Lizon Maharjan are adding two innovations — IoT-based microgrids and IoT-based HVAC monitoring.

Student Lizon Maharjan created both a prototype for a microgrid and a miniature air conditioning unit linked to an IoT monitoring system.

Though the microgrid concept dates back to Thomas Edison, microgrids have recently received increased attention as a means for local energy control. A microgrid refers to everything from a separate grid for a critical facility, like a hospital, to a grid linking a village, or even a single home powered by alternative energy sources. “Microgrids are systems that take advantage of distributed generation from a variety of renewable energy sources —solar, green and fuel cells,” Fahimi said. “I believe the microgrid is the future of power systems. You don’t have to transmit large amounts of power across hundreds of miles. You can even exchange power with neighboring microgrids to enhance the stability and reliability of electric power systems.”

While the benefits are significant, managing numerous microgrids in concert with a major power grid presents many challenges. Currently, a homeowner who has installed solar panels will not necessarily benefit from the investment during a blackout unless the system can effectively store power and disconnect easily from the main grid.

Dr. Babak Fahimi and Maharjan link solar panels to their microgrid prototype in the Renewable Energy and Vehicular Technology (REVT) Lab.

“Multiple energy sources pose interesting engineering challenges,” Fahimi said. “How do I monitor the harvest, how much energy is stored? What is the grid’s condition? How do I process information from thousands of agents in my microgrid village, then create commands for harvest, billing and power storage? Sometimes I can help the power grid to reduce the cost of electricity. Sometimes I can help with reliability during a blackout. Renewable sources of energy can work independently so the most critical parts of the power grid continue to operate.”

Like similar IoT systems, the microgrid will communicate data to a cloud-based platform, which can then enable consumers to make decisions in real time.

“You have to run models in a cloud platform, then develop the best operational commands,” Fahimi said. “That’s a massive problem at the intersection of power electronics, data science, communication and artificial intelligence. I envision a point where a consumer can schedule when to switch on and off from a renewable energy resource through an app.

Their research on grid disaster mitigation is currently in press at Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Smart Grid. In addition to microgrids, Fahimi, an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Fellow is developing IoT solutions to enable air conditioners to respond to environmental conditions and notify consumers about needed repairs.

“We will communicate this information into a cloud, then issue commands according to local conditions,” Fahimi said. “Consumers will have warnings so they’re not surprised when the A/C unit stops working.”

Similar to developing IoT solutions for microgrids, the air conditioner project requires interdisciplinary expertise.

“This project combines electrical engineering, signal processing, computer science and artificial intelligence to improve efficiency, reduce losses and ultimately create a better customer experience,” said Fahimi, holder of the Distinguished Chair in Engineering.

For anyone who has scrambled to fix the air conditioner during peak times, the ability to schedule a repair in advance as well as the option to switch off the main grid during a blackout will make all the difference.

“I think using IoT solutions for power systems is like taking a highway with multiple off-ramps,” Fahimi said. “If you want to stop, you don’t have to travel back 200 miles, you just take the next exit. You can address the problem before you have gone too far.”

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