Ending Gridlock for Renewable Energy

Looking out his office window on Centennial Campus, Progress Energy Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering Alex Huang stares past the brick buildings and open fields for a glimpse at the future. He envisions an electric grid that will revolutionize the nation’s power systems and speed renewable electric energy technologies into every home, car, and business. He hopes to make Centennial Campus his proving ground. “A green energy based society is our generation’s moon shot,” he says excitedly.

The National Science Foundation is so intrigued with Huang’s idea that it has just awarded NC State an initial five-year, $18.5 million grant (augmented by $10 million in industry support) to launch the Engineering Research Center (ERC) for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) Systems. The ERC can be renewed for a second five-year period and already has commitments from 65 companies for membership fees. As the grant leverages related grant funding and industry contract research, the effort could translate into a ten-year, $100 million boon to NC State’s energy research programs.
The FREEDM Systems Center will develop a grid that relies more on smaller, regional electricity generators than on large, multi-state utilities. Huang compares the move to a distributed supply system to the changeover from mainframe computers to local-area networks. Creating a “plug-and-play system” for people to charge up their homes and cars on any source of power, from their own solar panels to a nearby wind farm, would open renewable energy to wider and more efficient use, he says. It would also relieve some of the 100-year-old “legacy grid” of some of its demand, especially at peak times. “We know how to produce renewable energy, but we don’t have a way to consistently store and use the energy,” Huang says. “We generate it, and we use it. We need more intelligent energy management that can store and balance supply and demand.”

“A green energy based society is our generation’s moon shot.”

Just as the Internet provided an information highway that linked computers nationwide, the FREEDM System will build the highway for renewable energy resources, allowing customers to invest in green technologies and sell excess energy back to the grid. In its first five years, the FREEDM Systems Center will develop a one-megawatt demonstration grid to power the ERC’s headquarters on Centennial Campus. The demonstration will rely on new fundamental research in post-silicon electronics, system theory, computer engineering, and
storage technologies.

“This…will provide the knowledge and technology platforms the country needs to help reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and make our grid more secure.”

NC State researchers will work with scientists at Arizona State, Florida State, Florida A&M, Missouri University of Science & Technology, and German and Swiss partners to design and construct the new smart grid system. The international team is already working on the needed breakthroughs in energy storage, system control, and solid-state devices to make the enabling technologies for the FREEDM grid possible. “We applaud the collaborative spirit of Alex Huang’s work,” says Chancellor James L. Oblinger, “and believe the results coming from this NSF center will deliver broad changes in our nation’s approach to energy. Solving the energy crisis is not just about generating renewable energy but also about developing the infrastructure needed for distribution. As more renewable energy becomes available, we and our research partners will help deliver it to millions of homes and businesses.”

Plug-in hybrid vehicles, which can get up to 100 miles per gallon while slashing greenhouse gas emissions, will become a key component of the new grid. Gov. Mike Easley announced in February the creation of the Advanced Transportation Energy Center (ATEC) on Centennial Campus to improve the plug-in hybrid technology. State lawmakers, Progress Energy and Duke Energy are funding the center, and Advanced Energy Corporation, a consulting firm on Centennial Campus that has worked with plug-in vehicles for several years, is providing technical assistance such as road tests and market research. Huang, who will direct both ATEC and the ERC, says the FREEDM grid will allow plug-in hybrids to both charge up and supply energy. “Instead of having plug-in hybrids be just another load on the system, we can use them as a network of generators and pull from all that stored power as needed,” Huang says.

In addition to its research efforts, the FREEDM Systems Center will train graduate and undergraduate students. The College of Engineering will create a new master’s degree program and an undergraduate certificate program in renewable energy systems. The Science House in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences will coordinate a partnership with 14 public schools in North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona to train teachers to integrate engineering and renewable energy concepts into their science curricula and to offer renewable energy summer programs for students.

In announcing the center, Lynn Preston, leader of the NSF Engineering Research Centers Program, said “The unique vision of the FREEDM Systems Center to enable the smooth inclusion of renewable energy sources in the power grid in a ‘plug-and-play’ mode will provide the knowledge and technology platforms the country needs to help reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and make our grid more secure.”


Dr. Alex Huang is leading the effort to create a new, smart electrical grid that relies on distributed sources of power, especially renewable energy.

The Advanced Transportation Energy Center will work to improve the technology for plug-in hybrid vehicles, which are expected to be in commercial production in the next few years.