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Students Take Part in National Smart Grid Competition

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A team of students from the University of Kansas School of Engineering is in the nation’s capital to compete against teams from more than 50 universities from around the country for a $75,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.  The money would enable the students to build a large-scale version of an innovative small-scale smart grid they designed and built this year after earning a $10,000 grant from the EPA.

Seven members of the KU EcoHawks will be on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., April 16-17 for the People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Student Design Competition for Sustainability, sponsored by the EPA.  The competition aims to provide college students with hands-on experience that brings classroom learning to life.  The best ideas from the competition receive $75,000 in funding to take those designs to real-world application.

“There’s no question, we’re definitely going to wow some people, because no other school has done this proof of concept,” said Bryan Strecker, a member of the KU EcoHawks smart grid team and first-year graduate student.

The small-scale smart grid

the EcoHawks will display at the P3 competition harnesses and stores energy from multiple sources, and allows the consumer to select what type of power source is utilized and when.

“Basically, we have three different power sources.  We have a generator, which serves as a traditional coal-fired power source, and we have two sources of renewable energy, solar and wind,” Strecker said. “Then, the smart grid ties them all together so we can use them strategically to get the best efficiency and best power usage out of everything.”

A simple flip of a switch allows the user to determine which power source the smart grid draws from, and the team is able to monitor the system’s energy input and output on-site in real-time through a laptop that draws its power from the smart grid.

“We have 14 switches to direct the energy to wherever we want at any given time.  We can charge multiple things simultaneously and we can do them individually,” Strecker said.  “We wanted to have that freedom with the system.  That’s what the customer is going to like and that’s key to our success at the competition.”

The team also built into their design an eco-friendly way to make a fun snack, though it looks like they won’t get the opportunity to fully utilize it at the competition.

“We included a popcorn popper to show how our smart grid incorporates household appliances, and because we know precisely how much power it uses.  Since we knew exactly how much current it was going to be drawing, we were able to size the rest of our components around that,” Strecker said.  “Plus, our adviser really likes popcorn … but sadly, we just found out that we can’t give it out on the National Mall, because teams aren’t allowed to serve concessions or give out food.”

Although the team is confident of success at the P3 competition, even if things don’t turn out as they hope, team members say the project has still been a rewarding experience.

“EcoHawks is a great program.  Everybody is involved.  We’re really excited to be doing this, and it really gives us an opportunity to really sink our teeth into some new and upcoming technologies,” Strecker said.

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