EcoHawks power up small-scale smart grid in D.C.

Chris Depcik, KU assistant professor of mechanical engineering, points to a laptop that is monitoring the energy input and output of a small-scale smart grid. The EcoHawks displayed the model during a EPA competition in Washington D.C. last weekend.

Chris Depcik, KU assistant professor of mechanical engineering, points to a laptop that is monitoring the energy input and output of a small-scale smart grid. The EcoHawks displayed the model during a EPA competition in Washington D.C. last weekend. by Christine Metz

When a team of seven Kansas University engineering students traveled to Washington, D.C., last week, they brought with them a solar panel, popcorn maker, car battery and a lot of switches.

The items were used in a small-scale model of what a future electrical grid would look like. The model, which fit onto a rolling cart, was on display at the National Mall last weekend. KU was among the 55 schools competing in the People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Student Design Competition for Sustainability, which was hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Here's a video the EPA produced explaining the competition. Late last summer the group, which is part of the KU EcoHawks, began working on the concept with the help of a $10,000 grant from the EPA.

At the core, the EcoHawks were looking at ways to design a small-scale smart grid system that could one day be built on a larger scale to support millions of electric vehicles.

“If everyone had (an electric vehicle), we would need to build 165 new power plants,” said Chris Depcik, KU assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “But if we did it intelligently, we wouldn’t need any.”

The small-scale model uses three kinds of power sources: a 60-watt solar panel, a 50-watt wind turbine (which typically generates around 20 watts) and a gasoline generator. It also has multiple ways to store the energy, one of which is a battery pack that had the same chemistry found in the battery of a Chevy Volt.

The real innovation comes with the computer software and electrical hardware that allow the different components of the grid to interact. With a series of switches, students can choose to use the gasoline generator, renewable energy or stored energy to power the popcorn maker.

“It levels out the demand’s peaks and valleys,” KU senior and team leader Mickey Clemon said.

A system such as the one the EcoHawks envision is years away. But Lawrence residents will make the first step toward a new era of electricity this spring when Westar Energy installs smart meters in every home. These smart meters send information back and forth between the customer and Westar, allowing consumers to see just how much energy they are using at certain times of the day.

From there, it’s not so much of a stretch to think that one day Lawrence residents will be charging their electric cars at night when energy is at its cheapest and then using it during the day to either power their homes or sell it back to the electric companies at a higher price, Clemon said.

The EcoHawks’ small-scale smart grid didn’t take home the $75,000 in grant funding that was at stake as part of the EPA competition. But it did earn an honorable mention.

Had the EcoHawks received the grant, they would have used it to build a larger scale grid. Plans for the project continue with the hope that companies will come forward with support.

“The only difference in not getting the grant: I’m taking a day off instead of a week,” Clemon quipped.

More from Christine Metz

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