Renewable energy at ANU

Power up

By Brett Szmajda

A smarter, safer electricity grid will make use of renewable energy and be able to repair itself.

When a massive storm hits, downing power lines and plunging your home into darkness, how long you’re left sitting in candlelight depends on the engineers working 24/7 to fix the problem.

The College of Engineering and Computer Science at the Australian National University (ANU) is researching ways to avoid blackouts altogether. They aim to have computers monitor the electricity grid and instantly detect power interruptions, rerouting the flow for minimal disruption. It’s a big task, but this ‘self-healing grid’ is the dream of ANU’s Smart Grid team.

A scientist on the project, Carleton Coffrin, says power engineers currently see a self-healing grid as an impossible goal. “It’s a very controversial idea,” he says, “It’s a huge computational challenge to figure out the optimal way to reconfigure and resupply everyone’s power.”

Grid repairs are even more complex when you factor in renewable energy sources, including wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars. Instead of just drawing in electricity from a few large coal-fired power generators, the grid needs to adapt to flow in and out of hundreds of smaller power sources.

It’s a global problem, but CS tools can help address the issue. Recently, students from around the globe gathered at the International Student Energy Summit in Bali to look at how technology will transform the way we generate and conserve energy in the future. Gissela Uribe and Paulina Duchicela attended as part of their Masters in Business Information Systems at ANU.

“My dream career is to be the ‘interpreter’ between society and the science and business worlds,” Gissela says. “I see technology as a part of life.”

So does the municipality of Amsterdam, which is proposing a number of ‘smart city’ initiatives to reduce power usage. These include street lights that adjust brightness according to weather conditions, and buildings heated by waste heat from electricity usage.

Besides technical expertise, the challenge of building cutting-edge technology into an old electricity grid will call for ingenuity from software engineers. Paulina says she’s well-equipped for the future, thanks to her degree.

“At ANU, I was motivated to research, challenge, question, argue and think outside the box,” she says. “The skills I’ve developed are more valuable than the knowledge acquired, which tends to lose relevance over time.”

Carleton encourages everyone to learn basic programming. “Everyone who’s gone out on a limb and learnt to code has profoundly affected their career,” he says. “When people learn about the software underlying the tools they use every day, they feel freed and empowered.”

TO GET THERE: cecs.anu.edu.au/explorecomputing

“At ANU, I was motivated to research, challenge, question, argue and think outside the box.”

STEM Contributor

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