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Inspiration Behind the Smart Grid: A Series of Defining Moments | Technological Leadership Institute

Posted on
November 30, 2016
Photo of TLI Director Dr. Massoud Amin

How have your life’s experiences shaped the course of your career? Are there certain events or circumstances you can identify as defining moments? For Technological Leadership Institute (TLI) Director Dr. Massoud Amin there were several such moments, each cementing an important layer in the foundation of his distinguished career.

Dr. Amin is known worldwide as the “father of the smart grid,” but what many may not realize is the series of often devastating events that fueled his immense passion for electricity and its impact on the human condition.

Born in Tabriz, Iran into a medical family with a long tradition of service, much of Dr. Amin’s childhood included traveling from village to village as his parents performed volunteer work and treated patients. He recalls seeing families trying to farm “plots of earth so parched they cracked under the searing sun,” and villages where most people did not live past their forties.

When electricity began to reach these villages in the mid to late 1960s, new wells and pumps gave way to cleaner water and improved irrigation. The once-barren farmland became green and fertile. In turn, children grew up healthier and people lived longer. Little by little, the villages began to flourish with new businesses, schools, and medical facilities, driving a more stable and diverse economy.

“I was deeply affected by seeing people lead longer, less arduous lives because they had electricity,” said Amin. “I could see the engineering aspect of it and the human aspect of it. So the passion started very early on. Electricity is the linchpin: This critical infrastructure constitutes the fundamental infrastructure of modern society.”

A decade later, he would again find himself in the midst of a blackout “upheaval.” As an adolescent in high school, he witnessed the New York City blackout that would cost the city billions of dollars in damage. A series of lightning strikes cut power for 25 hours, sending the city into chaos. Thousands of people were evacuated from the subway system, fires burned across the city and looters vandalized local businesses. The chaos prompted Amin to see how devastating loss, as much as lack, of electricity could be to a community.

Recognizing the need to fix the fundamental infrastructure of modern society to be more efficient and resilient, Amin set out to learn as much as possible about engineering, applied mathematics, and complex dynamical systems – from societal to technological and from policy and economics to underlying dynamics that shape us and our world. He earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and a master's and doctorate in systems science and mathematics from Washington University in St. Louis.

In 1998, his passion led him to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), where he led the creation and launch of the EPRI/DOD Complex Interactive Networks/Systems Initiative (CIN/SI), a new R&D initiative intended to heighten national security with smart grid technology in response to growing concern that the national infrastructure was increasingly vulnerable. Amin’s research there led the development of over 24 technologies that have since been brought to market in their respective industries.

Ironically, on September 11, 2001, Amin was at a meeting, less than a mile from the Pentagon, discussing disaster risk management with White House, U.S. Department of Defense officials and other agencies when the terrorist attacks took place in New York. EPRI promoted him after 9/11 to direct security R&D for all North American utilities. He led a team of experts and worked closely with more than 98 percent of North American utilities. The response to 9/11 comprised of four major initiatives, ranging from strategic spare parts (including high voltage transformers), red teaming of a variety of interdependent utilities while developing risk-managed cost-effective countermeasures, and the assessment and development of a secure communication network, as well as the implementation of layers of defense for the highest risk enterprises (personnel, physical and cyber assets and supply-chains and interdependencies with other critical infrastructures).

He advised the leadership of public and private sectors, including Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the White House and the National Science Advisor at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Director of National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)Undersecretaries at the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and Department of Defense (DoD)Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), FBI, and other agencies, while developing and leading innovative, effective, data-driven, applied solutions and deployed strategies against advanced threats.

Six years later, he watched from his office window on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota, where TLI was then housed, as the I-35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River. The days and months that followed required extraordinary efforts from many, including thirteen of his former students and alumni from TLI, who were involved in the design and reconstruction of the new I-35W bridge. They incorporated a sensor network into the new I-35W bridge (at less than 0.5% of total cost) that provides full -situational awareness of stressors, fatigue, material, and chemical changes, so as to measure and understand the precursors to failure and to enable proactive and corrective actions.

Both devastating events reinforced his belief that more needs to be done to protect critical infrastructures.

“As an infrastructure/energy professional and an electrical engineer, I cannot imagine how anyone could believe that in the United States we should learn to ‘cope’ with bridge collapses and blackouts — and that we don’t have the technical know-how, the political will, or the money to bring our infrastructure up to 21st century standards,” said Amin. “I do not believe the American people would, or should, settle for a substandard critical infrastructure. Coping as a primary strategy is ultimately defeatist. We absolutely can meet the needs of a pervasively digital society that relies on microprocessor-based devices in vehicles, homes, offices, and industrial facilities. And it is not just a matter of 'can.' We must, if the United States is to continue to be an economic power.”

Nearly 40 years after the blackout in New York City, some of the most advanced societies in the world are still depending the same technology that faltered in the 1977 blackout. In his 2012 TEDx talk at the University of Minnesota titled “Powering Progress: Smart Infrastructure and the Future of Cities,” Amin noted that the world’s electricity supply will need to triple by 2050 to keep up with demand. The current electrical system is already under an enormous amount of stress. In the United States, power outages cost the country between 80 to over 187 billion dollars per year.

The need to develop a better, more efficient way of using electricity is apparent and has fueled much of Amin’s progress in developing and implementing his work on the “smart grid,” an electrical power system that utilizes digital technology (such as sensors, controls, and secure communication networks) to overlay the current electrical grid. The overlaying, digital grid would then use real-time communication technologies to monitor any potential issues and heal itself within a fraction of a second to prevent outages and other system upsets by rerouting electricity through other pathways while the physical problem is fixed (downed power lines, disabled power stations, faulty equipment, and more). Implementing a smart grid over our existing system could help prevent power outages by unforeseen catalysts like severe weather, human error or even sabotage.

Today, influenced by a series of incredible defining moments and driven by a passion to make a lasting difference in the world, Dr. Amin is as determined as ever to secure and modernize critical infrastructures to improve lives not only in remote villages and large cities, but around the world.

“That is one of the many reasons I am so committed to TLI’s mission of developing local and global leaders for technology-intensive enterprises,” said Amin. “Our industry-leading faculty, in partnership with businesses, government, world-class experts, have been helping advance progress that have many wide, sustainable, systemic, global impact that protects and improves the human condition while growing economies locally and globally. We will not rest on our laurels. Together, we have a lot to do.”

To learn more about TLI’s programs, mission and commitment to success visit tli.umn.edu.

Credit: Marek Pramuka, SKS Director of Admissions

About the Author

Photo of Azra Halilovic

Azra Halilovic

Senior Communications Specialist

I do not believe the American people would, or should, settle for a substandard critical infrastructure ... We absolutely can meet the needs of a pervasively digital society that relies on microprocessor-based devices in vehicles, homes, offices, and industrial facilities.

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