Researchers to develop robust power resources that can withstand increasing natural disasters

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded almost $100 million in funding nationwide, including to the University of Minnesota.

by Nikki Pederson

The University of Minnesota is set to receive almost $4 million from the Department of Energy to develop sustainable energy grids that can withstand aging infrastructure and catastrophic events.

Earlier this month, the Department of Energy announced $98 million in funding for 40 new projects as part of OPEN 2018, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s latest funding opportunity. The University’s project will reanalyze power recovery from near blackout conditions, according to their project description. Other universities that received funding include Harvard University, Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Power outages can have deadly effects on critical infrastructure such as hospitals and medical centers. Generators can have lapses in power, according to Sourav Patel, a doctoral student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and lead student researcher on the project. “If these generators take too long to kick in, that could be very critical to patients in urgent care,” Patel said.

While the funding has been approved, the three-year project is currently in a negotiation stage where the budget and project specifics can still be changed.

“The basic idea was motivated by some of the things we’re seeing because of climate change,” said Murti Salapaka, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University and the project’s lead researcher.

As climate change continues, extreme weather will become more frequent, according to a U.S. climate report released last week. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, droughts and fires can have detrimental impacts on a community’s energy grid. Eleven months passed before Puerto Rico regained full power after Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017. And Hurricane Harvey, which struck the Gulf Coast area of Texas around the same time, resulted in substantial power outages.

“It’s very exciting and probably very timely,” Salapaka said of the project. There seem to be bigger catastrophic events with regards to climate change, he said.

When the negotiations are finalized, the researchers will likely be working alongside a hospital in Alaska, a power company in Vermont and the University’s Medical Center.

“What [Salapaka] is doing with sustainable energy grids is … really critical for avoiding potential calamities associated with our energy grid,” Cramer said. Such disasters could be natural, or they could be hostile, such as cyber attacks, he added.

Commonly known as ARPA-E, the government agency is tasked with promoting, funding and developing advanced energy technologies.

“[ARPA-E] is really supposed to fund somewhat more risky, speculative research that they might not otherwise do,” said Chris Cramer, the University’s vice president of research.

This isn’t the first time the Department of Energy has supported University research. The Inorganometallic Catalyst Design Center had $12 million in funding renewed earlier this summer. It also funds the Nanoporous Materials Genome Center within the University’s chemistry department.

“[The Department] is a great source of funding for the University, and lots of scientists and engineers have attracted that kind of support because of the expertise we’ve got here,” Cramer said.