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Associated Alumni

Generating power the ‘smart’ way

One day, your air conditioner and water heater could do more than make your life more comfortable – they could pay some of your bills.

For centuries, fossil fuels have been used to generate electricity, and power plants have relied on the traditional power grid – a network of power lines and substations – to carry electricity to homes and businesses. (Source: commoncraft.com)

Today, the growing demand for electric energy and the need for reliable, secure and sustainable power sources are driving the transformation of utilities worldwide. Many companies are now working towards reducing their reliance on fossil fuels by using a smarter grid.

Smart grids are high-tech distribution networks for electricity that enable power utilities and consumers to communicate with each other through information technologies, such as sensors and software. 

Transforming the power grid

(Liuchen Chang)

UNB has a unique combination of strengths in research, teaching and new business development that facilitates growth in this important sector of Canada’s knowledge economy. Under the direction of Liuchen Chang, professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at UNB Fredericton; and Chris Diduch, UNB Fredericton's dean of engineering, UNB’s Sustainable Power Research group helps utilities transform their conventional electric power systems into low-carbon smart grids.

Chang has developed ways for energy to flow from small sources on the grid, rather than just having the grid deliver electricity from big plants.

"Power systems and communication networks, which in the past were parallel, now are merging together," says Chang. "This leads to the development of the smart grid. There are more sensors with more information and data not available in the past."

In 2016, UNB teamed up with NB Power and Siemens Canada to establish the Smart Grid Innovation Network, a world-class energy management partnership with the potential to introduce sustainable energy sources to the power grid and reduce energy waste. The network combines the university’s research capacity with the expertise of industry leaders like NB Power and Siemens.

For the past 20 years, Chang and his research group have studied and developed innovative technologies in renewable energy and distributed generation systems. Over the last decade, that research has expanded into developing intelligent load management for smart grid systems. Chang received a New Brunswick Innovation Foundation R3 Innovation Award in 2016 for this research.

"We are able to create more system resources and services to the power systems and the consumers," says Dr. Chang. "We can tap into loads in appliances in a home or business. These loads have energy storage capacity and we can shift the power consumption."

To the average consumer, this won’t necessarily mean reduced electricity bills, but Chang believes it will slow the rate at which bills increase by keeping capital costs down for power companies. It would also provide the potential for homes and businesses to make money from their appliances.

"Consumers would be providing services to power systems. That has a financial value. Users could be paid for putting their air conditioner or water heater on the smart grid."

A healthier power system

Being on the smart grid won’t impact the end user; that’s a focus of the technology. Consumers won’t notice a change in room temperature or water availability, but behind the scenes, a healthier power system will reduce the frequency of power outages, allow power companies to take pre-emptive action before a system shows weakness, and reduce the use of more expensive generators in serving peak load. It will take a few years before this technology could be seen in homes.

The smart grid is able to accommodate more renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, and could even result in electric vehicles storing energy for consumers. That kind of research has a global impact. The Caribbean island of Barbados currently uses 100 per cent fossil fuel, but in 30 years could transition to 100 per cent renewable energy sources because of the smart grid.

Not only is UNB contributing significantly to the research in this field, but the Fredericton campus is also a test site. Parts of the Wu Conference Centre are connected to the smart grid, while there are plans for areas of the Aitken University Centre, The Richard J. CURRIE CENTER, and Head Hall to join it in 2017.

Chang's research and UNB’s partnerships are already fueling the flame for more collaboration. Chang and his colleagues have discussed creating a multi-disciplinary research group at the university, and on Jan. 27, Emera Inc. announced it is making a major investment in research at UNB. Emera Inc. is contributing $6.2 million to establish the Emera & NB Power Centre for Smart Grid Technologies. The contribution will support an Emera Chair in Smart Grid Technologies at UNB, as well as provide direct funding for smart grid research.

Back to Alumni News Direct - January 2017