MIT Energy Initiative

New elective hits sweet spot for energy students

Leda Zimmerman, MITEI correspondent June 15, 2017 MITEI

MIT students with an appetite for energy studies enjoy a buffet of options, with classes covering renewable and fossil fuel–based forms of energy production, energy storage, power electronics, and systems optimization as well as energy distribution, policy, markets, and regulation. But in 2015, Konstantin Turitsyn, associate professor of mechanical engineering, realized something was missing from the feast.

“There was no class providing a system-level perspective to help students understand how energy technologies are linked together within a power grid, how that power grid imposes constraints on those technologies, and how that power grid is controlled,” says Turitsyn. A physicist who develops novel mathematical tools for analyzing such large-scale systems as energy networks, Turitsyn was well-equipped to remedy the situation.

With the help of a grant from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Turitsyn designed 2.S997 Fundamentals of Smart and Resilient Grids, a new elective for the Energy Studies Minor. While it targets mechanical engineering students, 2.S997 aims to provide an introduction to power systems that is accessible to a wide spectrum of undergraduate and graduate students, requiring only a basic background in core physics, math, and engineering. The class debuted in fall 2016 to a warm reception.

“I have been studying generation methods like wind turbines, renewable fuels, and solar panels, but I didn’t fully understand the difference between AC and DC, or how distribution worked,” says Wesley Cox, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. “This class gave me a basic understanding of the way electricity gets from one place to another, and a solid understanding of grid infrastructure.”

Senior Ali Trueworthy, majoring in mechanical and ocean engineering, has conducted research on energy-efficient desalination methods as well as on wave energy at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Before 2.S997, she says, “I didn’t really get what people meant when they said the grid couldn’t handle fluctuating sources of energy output. Through the class, I gained a good concept of not only how an electric grid works, but also where grid infrastructure needs to go and the steps left for renewable technologies to become integrated in the grid.”

This is precisely the kind of content the energy studies curriculum needs to deliver, says Antje Danielson, director of education for the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). “At MIT, we are focused on the future of energy, including tackling the transition from fossil fuel–dominated energy production to the integration of renewables into the grid,” she says. “Offering a class like 2.S997 is crucial.”

This was also a course perfectly suited for one of the MITEI-administered Bechtel Foundation grants, which seek to ensure that energy classes keep pace with the evolving landscape of energy systems, Danielson notes. “We try to identify areas where we don’t have strong representation in the curriculum, ideally aligned tightly with current energy research, and encourage the development of courses with strong and innovative pedagogies,” she says.

Striking the right balance in course design

Turitsyn and his collaborator Petr Vorobev, a postdoctoral associate in mechanical engineering, were eager to design a class with a range of appealing and instructive activities. They set themselves an ambitious target: introducing the structure and dynamics of power grids, detailing conventional and renewable energy technologies and storage, and describing demand-side management, microgrids, emergency control options, and resilient energy systems.

“Our main challenge was to ensure that students with different backgrounds all got something from the class, so they wouldn’t be either frustrated or bored,” says Turitsyn. Through lectures and problem sets, the class “focused on short stories, real case studies, that explained core mechanisms, such as voltage stability, the physics of power flows, how energy markets work,” he says.

“We explained the technical obstacles associated with photovoltaics and wind—voltage control issues—that can make it difficult to integrate renewables into the grid,” says Vorobev. “We also showed on a fundamental level why the price for electricity varies in different places in the same grid.”

For some students, the math involved in analyzing these cases proved demanding. “Power systems modeling was really math-heavy,” recalls Trueworthy. “I didn’t have a strong background in electrical concepts, so I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of understanding voltage and power.”

Vorobev recognized that some of the case-based problems he developed were too difficult. “When I carefully wrote down all the solutions so students could check their work, I found that the problems required an enormous amount of time,” he says. “We adjusted on the fly when we realized that some material was too ambitious,” says Turitsyn.

During a meeting of his new class, Konstantin Turitsyn, associate professor of mechanical engineering, describes some of the technical challenges involved in integrating solar photovoltaics and wind into today’s power grid. Photo: Kelley Travers, MITEI

Problem-solving projects

In the semester’s second half, 2.S997 shifted gears from lectures and homework to projects. This was a pedagogical first for Turitsyn at MIT. “Students here are very mature, and we wanted to give them some freedom to analyze, model, and present real problems in power systems, preferably those related to new technologies,” he says. “Groups came up with ideas I hadn’t imagined or heard of before.”

Cox’s group looked at ways of using power generated by solar farms to stabilize the grid in the case of some instability. “In class, I learned that it is shockingly easy to take out an entire grid even if the problem lies with a single facility,” says Cox. “And if we want to integrate green energy into the grid, we can’t make the argument without bringing in new systems and infrastructure.”

In her team’s project, Trueworthy identified electricity-intensive industrial processes that could run exclusively during times when energy available from the grid is greater than demand and when prices might also be low.

Such opportunities might occur when an intermittent, renewable energy source such as solar is producing more power than can be consumed. “Our project showed this inverse demand response could profit certain kinds of chemical industries as well as help balance supply and demand on the grid.”

Skeptical at first that industries could be flexible enough to take advantage of such shifts in grid load consumption, Turitsyn now believes this team found a “viable, promising business opportunity.” He notes that the work is a good example of finding a way to integrate and utilize intermittent energy sources such as solar and wind—the kind of case study 2.S997 is built around.

In the next iteration of the class, in 2018, “We want to put more emphasis on these projects, which will get students excited and thinking about new ideas,” says Turitsyn. “It’s a class I enjoyed, learned from, and now feel passionate about.”

This article appears in the issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. Subscribe today

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