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New Mexico State University

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NMSU engineering professor researches power grids of the future

When the largest power blackout in U.S. history occurred last August, it called attention to the nation's aging and overburdened power grid.

The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal of restructuring the nation's power grid by 2030. The agency would like to upgrade the current grid -- in which power is provided by large centralized generators -- to a network in which centralized generation is supplemented by small generators located close to where power is used. Many of these generators would use renewable energy such as solar energy and fuel cells.

Such a power grid would not only be more reliable and environmentally friendly, but could be cheaper because it would eliminate the cost of shipping power.

Joydeep Mitra, an associate professor of electrical engineering at NMSU and associate director of NMSU's Electric Utility Management Program, hopes his research will contribute to making this new grid structure a reality.

Mitra is studying reliable layouts for these so-called microgrids. A major focus of his work is how to plan such grids so that they can accommodate growth in the future.

"We don't want to do this on an ad-hoc basis as we have done with the grid in the past," Mitra says. "We want to do it in a rational and structured manner. Since this infrastructure is not yet in place, we have the opportunity to develop new designs almost from the ground up."

The new designs will also efficiently utilize the mix of energy resources that vary depending on geographical area. The objective is to develop microgrid architectures that will provide reliable and economical energy, be ecologically friendly and also support the main grid.

He also is studying how to identify vulnerabilities in power grids -- research he hopes will enable development of measures that can prevent a "domino effect" of problems such as those that caused the 2003 power outage.

Mitra has a prestigious CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to fund his research and education plans. These grants are given to promising young scientists to help launch their academic careers. Mitra received the five-year, $375,000 grant in 2002. He joined the NMSU faculty last year because of the opportunity to work with other power experts in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

In addition to funding his research, Mitra says the NSF grant provides an excellent opportunity to enhance education for students in the areas of power systems and electric utility management.