The National Science Foundation’s Center for Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) has awarded Enrico Pontelli a five-year grant to develop a broad culture of smart grids at New Mexico State University. Pontelli, a computer science professor and department head in the College of Arts and Sciences, is partnering with researchers in other disciplines across the university to study the use of smart grids – electrical units that employ digital information technology to predict patterns and help improve sustainability. The $5 million grant will be used to launch research, which will focus on intelligent technologies for smart grids.
“Smart grids represent the future of the electrical generation and distribution infrastructure, and present a number of challenges that the research community is trying to address,” Pontelli said. “We have a great amount of talent at NMSU that can contribute to advancing the state-of-the-art in smart grid technologies. We aim at becoming known as a leading research institution in this area.”
“This National Science Foundation CREST award is a tremendous achievement,” said Christa Slaton, dean of NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “It recognizes Dr. Pontelli’s diligence in pursuing a vision for smart grid research that cuts across disciplines while offering our students a STEM-related course of study that can lead to high-demand careers in the future, contributing to the long-term success of our state and the region.”
Pontelli likened smart grids to solar panels, which allow consumers to be producers of energy as well as users: “Right now we are still relying very much on big power plants to produce electricity. People believe this model is not sustainable,” he said. “Power plants have to overproduce to ensure they meet the needs in worst case scenarios. They don’t have an idea of when electricity is really needed. Smart grids try to make a directional relationship between power plants and customers by predicting when customers need electricity. If they had that information, production would be more efficient.”
One of the benefits of smart grids is a decrease in prices, as researchers create a market place that currently doesn’t exist. The U.S. Army has already begun to make strides with smart grids as they develop prototypes in new military installations.
“They want to be as self-sufficient as possible. In cities, we need bigger models,” said Pontelli, who already has years of experience in intelligent systems. This, however, is his first endeavor in smart grid technology.
Pontelli hopes NMSU will become an innovator in the smart grid industry and the first institution in the Southwest to offer training programs and a graduate degree track: “We’re very excited about this grant,” he said. “There are a lot of statistics that show that the demand for people with that kind of expertise is very high and going to explode in the next few years. It’s going to be a very marketable skill and we want to help meet that demand with our programs.”
Pontelli and Satish Ranade, electrical engineering department head, will act as co-directors of the center, with a faculty steering committee consisting of Sukumar Brahma, electrical engineering; Jay Misra, computer science; William Yeoh, computer science, Huiping Cao, computer science; Son Tran, computer science; and Susan Brown, director of the NMSU STEM outreach center.