Amid a jumble of wires going every which way, Qing-Chang Zhong’s laboratory at Illinois Institute of Technology is a microcosm of the frantic era of invention that grips the state, national, and global electricity supply and transmission sector. Credit: Keith Schneider for Midwest Energy News

While a recent Energy Department report received a lot of attention for its conclusions about the generating mix, it also warned that 21st century generating technologies – such as wind and solar — were testing the stability of a transmission system designed in the 20th.

“The rapid changes occurring in the generation resource mix and technologies are altering the operational characteristics of the grid,” said the report, “and will challenge system planners and operators to maintain reliability.”

Which means the laboratories of grid innovation, like the one directed by Dr. Qing-Chang Zhong at the Illinois Institute of Technology, are essential to keeping the lights on.

Zhong is a 47-year-old electrical engineer, trained in China, Israel and England, who arrived three years ago at IIT’s southside Chicago campus to assume an endowed professor’s chair in energy, power engineering, and management – a post that took the school five years to fill.

Zhong brings to the university a sunny and accessible character, and a potentially game-changing invention: A new control device that helps better manage the way electricity from sources like wind and solar interacts with the grid.

The collection of young engineers huddled in Zhong’s basement IIT lab amid a jumble of computer work stations, motherboards, voltage measuring devices, and wires going every which way is a microcosm of the frantic era of invention that grips the state, national, and global electricity supply and transmission sector.

Prodded by technology and the goal of lower costs, inspired by the ideal of cleaner and safer electrical suppliers, Zhong’s crew is a tiny and effective addition to the powerful river of innovation that is rapidly transforming electrical generation and transport.

A vital invention

Zhong’s patented invention could dramatically speed the development of renewable energy and stabilize smart transmission grids in the United States and worldwide, according to experts familiar with the work.

“As coal plants shut down, as nuclear plants shut down, as these large rotating synchronous machines shut down and more, smaller non-synchronous generators come online, the grid begins to get unstable,” said one of Zhong’s advisors, Jim MacInnes, a power systems engineer and chief executive of Crystal Mountain, a northern Michigan ski and vacation resort that is a showcase of energy-conserving technology and practices.  “We need devices that provide stability, which is why Qing-Chang’s work is so important.”

Essentially what Zhong developed is a new operating system for an inconspicuous but ubiquitous voltage and current control device known as a power electronic converter. The converters, as their name suggests, are attached to electricity generators to corral electrons into an organized stream suitable for transmission.

Existing converters, though, can be one-directional and clumsy, like control gates in a big irrigation system. By moving up or down, the gates manage the one-way flow of water from the reservoir to a central canal. Even with contemporary digital controls and communication, they have little capacity to anticipate and quickly react to changes in conditions, like impeding the backflow caused by flooded canals.

Zhong has developed algorithms and programmed computer chips to enable his synchronous converters to automatically sense and quickly react to changes in electricity production and demand across transmission grids. Attached to solar and wind generators, or energy storage systems, Zhong’s converters manage the power flow and grid voltage according to real time conditions on the network. If energy demand is high, power production increases. If the grid voltage slumps, the converters will adjust to provide voltage support.

The device guides power generators and consumers to perform these tasks autonomously without signals from a central command center – which makes the whole system cheaper and less vulnerable to online attack.

“The goal is to unify all these power supply sources that we connect to the grid with all the things that consume electricity from the grid,” said Zhong. “Wind power, solar, electric vehicles, storage systems. They all are different. It’s difficult for these players to work together. They have different currents and different voltages and they fight with each other.

“That’s why people say this is so difficult for the grid. The solution is to harmonize all the players. Unify them so they can follow the same mechanism. They can behave in the same way. When they behave the same way they don’t fight with each other. They follow each other and harmonize the system.”

Using the irrigation analogy, every one of hundreds of control gates would act autonomously, sensing water levels to keep water supply in big canals stable. Zhong’s technology would also allow control gates to sense and react to field conditions, rising or descending on their own in response to soil moisture levels and water demand.

A huge potential market

Zhong envisions that appliance makers, electric motor suppliers, manufacturers, and electric vehicle makers will fix synchronous converters to their equipment. The devices are capable of increasing consumption slightly when surplus power is available, like during the evening, and turning down consumption when electricity supplies wane, all in real time. Currently grid operators often need hours to shift loads and turn on or off power stations to react to fluctuations.

The overall effect of Zhong’s power converters, he says, is not only to strengthen the electrical balance and stability that grid engineers seek, but also to reduce the price of generation and transmission. They do that by 1) allowing smaller, cheaper, and widely dispersed power stations to be wired to the grid, 2) limiting the need for big and expensive power plants, transformers and control equipment, and 3) reducing the amount of expensive standby generating reserves needed.

Last May, convinced that his work was ready to be tested on the market, Zhong formed a new Chicago-based company, Syndem, to produce synchronous converters that he calls “virtual synchronous machines.”

It’s a mouthful for laymen. But for electrical engineers and grid operators, Zhong’s invention is the sort of technological breakthrough – not quite as significant as the semiconductor in computing, but much more like the touch screen in smart phones–that helps to push an industry from one era to the next.

For the time being such control technology is not available for electricity generation and transport, which is why many utility executives are so nervous. Although the U.S. transmission grid is viewed by engineers as one of the 20th century’s largest, most complex and most productive machines, it also can be a bit psychotic. A falling tree branch can short out an entire county. During episodes of sudden surges or losses in current or voltage, the whole system can trip and shut down. In November 1965, and again in August 2003, big regions of the Northeast, Mid Atlantic, and Canada lost power for much of a day because of total grid blackouts.

The changing scope of the Illinois generating sector is emblematic of the challenge to building the 21st century grid. As power plants retire and new distributed generation is brought online, the task of balancing demand and supply, and maintaining the consistent frequency and voltage that the grid likes best, gets more difficult.

To some extent the State of Illinois anticipated the challenge and set in place two programs to help operators modernize generation and transmission. The first was a 2011 law, the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, allowing the state’s two big electric utilities to charge ratepayers a small fee for more than $3 billion in upgrades to the state’s grid. The second, the Future Energy Jobs Act, was enacted late last year to encourage more development of non-carbon and renewable energy sources. Both programs have prompted the development of startup technology companies in the Illinois electrical sector.

In 2010, the U.S. Small Business Administration recognized Chicago’s collection of electric sector startups as one of the 11 national centers of technological innovation. The SBA awarded IIT two grants to start the Smart Grid Cluster, a Chicago consortium created to help startups thrive. David Baker, the group’s director, said the Smart Grid Cluster assisted 75 companies over the last seven years that employed 450 professional staffers, most of them working in and near Chicago.

Baker, who spent much of his career as a specialist in government affairs and a senior IIT administrator, also is an advisor to Syndem and knows the company’s technology well.  “The synchronous converter is very promising,” he said in an interview. “The problem for Dr. Zhong is to get this stuff out and used and tested. He needs to get it out now. Qing understands that. The next step is to get him the help to make it happen.”

Keith Schneider, a nationally known environmental journalist based in northern Michigan, reports on trends in energy, water, food, and climate from six continents.

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