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NMSU leads statewide SMART grid project

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If Iran, North Korea or some other hostile foreign power – or a domestic terrorist – decided to attack the United States, it could potentially knock out the county’s electric grids by striking just a handful of key sites. A team led by New Mexico State University is working to develop a SMART grid and other technology to keep electricity flowing in the U.S. no matter what happens.

With a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), NMSU is collaborating with other New Mexico colleges and universities, national laboratories, power companies, rural electric cooperatives and other institutions on the NM SMART (Sustainable, Modular, Adaptive, Resilient and Transactive) Grid Center, “a project that is pursuing research and workforce training for next-generation electric power production and delivery,” according to the New Mexico EPSCoR website.

A year into the project, “I think we’re doing quite well,” said NMSU Arts and Sciences Dean Enrico Pontelli. “It’s an exciting adventure.” Pontelli is EPSCoR NM’s lead for the SMART grid project. He initiated SMART grid research at NMSU in 2014 with a $5 million award from the NSF’s Center for Research Excellence in Science and Technology, according to an NMSU news release. 

As part of the NM SMART Grid Center project, NMSU has test sites in Las Cruces and other parts of the state where it works with El Paso Electric and other partners to develop electric grids that can function independently, continuing to provide electricity to homes, hospitals and other critical infrastructure even if the Western Interconnection energy grid that powers most of New Mexico and the rest of the western U.S. is somehow knocked offline.

 The technology involves the use of solar panels and solar batteries, Pontelli said, and even electric cars, whose batteries could be used as power sources during a blackout.

The overarching goal, Pontelli said, is to figure out “how to build a micro-grid that can be isolated, and how to operate it.”

New Mexico is the perfect place for the research, he said in an NMSU news release, “because we have access to any kind of energy source you can think of, [including oil, gas, wind and sun].” The state also offers “very diverse land configuration,” he said, and “different types and sizes of communities.”

Developing more secure encryption protocols for data transmission – adding background noise so data can’t be distinguished, for example – is another focus of the project, he said. That will help protect not only individuals but institutions that are being subjected to 1,000 or more cyberattacks in a single day. It could even reduce energy costs. The project is also looking at issues like exposed transmission lines and weather impacts.

New technology developed through the SMART grid program will also “make our life more comfortable, convenient and easier,” the dean said, from operating kitchen appliances, thermostats and home security systems to beefing up the security of personal information.

 Pontelli said the SMART grid project provides “a great learning opportunity” for NMSU students, and it has even led to the development of a bachelor’s degree program in cyber security, which the university launched in 2018.

NMSU engineering student Ada Ramoko was selected to present her research (“Protective Relaying and Fault Detection for Resilient Electric Grids with Distributed Energy Resources”) when NSF hosted a national EPSCoR conference in South Carolina last October. And, NMSU has about $500,000 in EPSCoR equipment available to researchers.

While other centers around the country are working on single tracks of SMART-grid technology, NMSU is leading a project that is unique because of its “holistic approach,” Pontelli said. The NM SMART Grid Center has “a much broader view,” he said, including an integration component. “It’s a model for the entire nation,” Pontelli said.

Learn more at www.epscorideafoundation.org.

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