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Fixing Our Energy and Transportation Infrastructure – Part 2

Editor’s Note: This post is Part 2 of a two-part transcript from an Access Minnesota interview with Dr. Massoud Amin. Access Minnesota is a weekly public affairs radio and television show featuring noted academics, authors, politicians and business leaders engaging in common sense conversations about compelling and relevant issues in the state of Minnesota, across the nation, and around the globe.

Jim Du Bois: Our guest is Dr. Massoud Amin. He is a professor of electrical computer engineering at the University of Minnesota where he holds the Honeywell chair in technological leadership and also is the director of the Technological Leadership Institute at the U of M’s Twin Cities campus. We’re talking about the nation’s infrastructure, particularly electrical utilities right now, and a concept called Smart Grid technology, which Professor Amin is a major supporter of. First of all professor, tell us what is Smart Grid technology?

Dr. Massoud Amin: This is an area that I had the privilege of researching and developing , pioneering Smart Grid about thirteen years ago at the think tank for all the utilities: the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto. The term “Smart Grid” refers to the use of computers, instrumentation sensing communications and control technologies that operate as an overlay on top of the grid, end-to-end. From our devices – in a secure, private and  confidential way, and from our home, all the way to the fuel source. In order to provide enhanced reliability , minimize disruptions of service to consumers. It is based on demand response, by responding to varying prices… for example reducing consumption when the demand and prices are high , such as smart thermostat control, or control of the high-usage equipment in peak times. This improves security both on the power system, as well as electronic and cyber quality of the power we are getting. This increases resilience and the ability to absorb and respond to shocks and disturbances in the system, and to facilitate interconnection of new generation sources into the grid. In a nutshell, think of it as advanced avionics that you put inside an aircraft. The more advanced ability to know what’s going on and to manage the system – the same type of ideas that we use for aircraft and combat systems applied to a network. That’s the same idea, except that the application is on civilian infrastructures. So I came up with and developed this initiative thirteen years ago at EPRI. Since then, we have made a lot of progress in terms of integration and management of all sources, and what is the best fit in terms of risk-cost analyses and environmental footprint and integration of new sources. All the way from renewable sources, to smaller advanced nuclear power, to coal (with carbon capture), gas, and biomass anything that can help make electricity more affordable, available and sustainable, would increase resilience, and is homegrown.

JB: Professor Amin, Minnesota got its first taste of Smart Grid technology this very summer. Tell us a little bit more about that project.

MA: Yes, that was the Phasor Measurement Devices (PMUs). It was the first tangible evidence that we are upgrading the system toward a Smart Grid. It’s essential in that it monitors the flow of electricity. Without these devices, it takes about three to four seconds to get the snapshot of what’s going on in the system. Just three to four seconds for electrons is the equivalent of several decades, because electrons travel almost at the speed of light. So a lot of trouble can begin, and potentially be unnoticed, without these Phasor Measurement Devices. They measure every couple hundred milliseconds, so it speeds up sensing and measurements about fifteen to twenty times faster . It increases the situational awareness – what’s going on in the system – to the grid operator, which will manage the system closer and closer to the edge. Again that is another group that my hat is off to because it’s a very hard task. In a split second, they have to make the decision and this is really a very important move. By the end of this year, we should have about fifteen sensing devices installed across the Midwest. By, I believe, March of 2013 we should have about 200 of them acting more like essentials that measure the health of the transmission lines on the whole MISO system.

JB: Our guest is Dr. Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota where he holds the Honeywell chair in technological leadership. He is also the director of the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. Dr. Amin, you had mentioned that the Midwest has long been a leader in terms of electrical power training, technology, maintenance, etc. Are we also on the cutting edge of Smart Grid technology compared with other parts of the country?

MA: We can be. We are very grateful to and have worked closely with Commissioner Bill Glahn with Ms. Georgia Hilker at the Office of Energy Security in the State of Minnesota . About a year and a half ago we started a series of workshops that we called the Minnesota Smart Grid Coalition. We have had five workshops with very high attendance from businesses, utilities, state government, even federal government, Canada, and the Minnesota Trade Office. My colleagues at the University from the College of Science and Engineering (from the Department of Electric and Computer Engineering and from other departments) have been very engaged. In every meeting, we have had between 120 to over 150 participants from diverse backgrounds and basically that is precisely what we’re doing: assessing what areas are the best match for us to develop together. I work also quite closely with a colleague –  Mr. Gary Smaby – on venture capital of making this happen as a “CoLab”. We have worked for about two years in partnership with a company to develop an actual product and to position Minnesota as a leader in that product development. So the foundational part is there and when you look at it from the regional competitiveness, building jobs to last is one of the key areas of working closely with another colleague, Mr. Michael Wright, who is engaged in this and is the former President/COO of Entegris. He moved to Portland a few years back and I’m delighted that he is coming back to Minnesota with his family. That is one of the areas that we are going to do more together, with this in mind, to create products that are made here and jobs that are here to stay. They’re not going to be outsourced; they’re not going offshore. There are things we can develop as a community together to position Minnesota as a leader in the development and deployment of Smart Grid technologies, products and services. We have already explored, together, the Smart Grid opportunities, what Minnesota’s competitive advantage in this market is and what we can do to take the lead, both regionally and nationally, in this area to develop a series of products that use our core strengths in Minnesota.

JB: Dr. Amin, a final question for you today. You’ve created a class at the graduate level of the University of Minnesota that studies major disasters. Tell us about that class and what you hope your students will take away from it.

MA: Thank you to the Institute I have the privilege of directing at the University of Minnesota – the Technological Leadership Institute (TLI)– we have three graduate degrees. One of them is the oldest Master of Science in management of technology (MOT) in the nation at a public university (created over 20 years ago). That MOT program is geared towards developing leaders for local and global technology enterprises. 33.4% of the MOT alumni of that program become executives within five to eight years after graduation. Another 52% become managers or senior managers. While we are talking about the infrastructure, we have a great program on infrastructure systems engineering (Master of Science), geared toward civil engineers, city planners and city managers… basically, leading in the infrastructure sector. That one was created ten years ago and we are grateful to have many colleagues over the years that have supported our programs. The most recent one is the Master of Science in security technologies (MSST). The first class was enrolled on June 1st, 2010 and it has been very successful. We basically develop our students’ capabilities in this vital area. They can specialize in cyber, in food safety, in supply chain security, in electric power or they can focus on policy and law. We are bringing 23 crème de la crème senior faculty from across the eight colleges at the University and public and private sectors to teach in the MSSTprogram. As an interdisciplinary Institute, at TLI we bridge across the University, almost like the mission specialists we were talking about earlier. We come together to build a program where the students develop an ability to go deep into one or two of the areas that they choose. At the same time, basically decide on what would be the best response or series of risk-managed responses to security challenges/opportunties, and we cover a wide range of topics from biological attacks, radiological, disease outbreak, pandemics, traditional attacks, natural disasters, 18 critical infrastructures, cyber and other areas within our MSST program. We cover energy, including electric, other areas like transportation, public health, information, telecom, banking and finance, postal and shipping, agriculture and food. So for us, technology is any application of science. Then, at the same time, we look at how we can increase security without diminishing our privacy, civil liberties and way of life. You know, a lot of times we fall into tyranny of “OR”: “Do we increase security, OR do we increase civil liberties/privacy?” I submit to you, that often, instead of “ORs” we can and must find solutions that are “ANDs.” We can develop non-intrusive or low-intrusive and high-confidence technologies that are analogous to MRIs. Previously we have had intrusive searches or exploratory surgery to detect certain ailments that couldn’t be diagnosed with just x-ray. So in the MSST program, we train our students to look for technologies, opportunities and policies that would systematically highlight trade-offs between liberty and privacy together with security. Our students learn to develop  non-intrusive high-confidence tools,systems, and processes that increase our security AND preserve our civil liberties.

JB: We’ve been talking with Dr. Massoud Amin a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota where he holds the Honeywell chair in technological leadership and is the director of the Technological Leadership Institute. Dr. Amin, thank you so much for joining us on Access Minnesota.

MA: Thank you Mr. Du Bois!

To listen to the audio version of the interview, click below:

Fixing Our Energy and Transportation Infrastructure – Part 2

    3 comments to Fixing Our Energy and Transportation Infrastructure – Part 2

    • Maddog

      From a person who puts his boots on everyday. The inside story is the management of electric utilities have the CEO greed complex. Your electric reliability is secondary to share holder value. That is eliminate all maintainance and reliability projects, reduce the work force as much as possible, mainly get rid of the older more deicated workers- they resist the present direction (screw the customer).

    • Technological Leadership Institute

      Thanks for weighing in @Maddog.

    • After reading the post, I would have to agree with Maddog as well. There is too much greed at top and unfortunately, it really fails to trickle down. Thank you for the insightful article about Energy and Transportation infrastructure. It was very educational.

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