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ILP Institute Insider

March 28, 2013

Energy Infrastructures of the Future

Strategic energy solutions in an age of economic, political, and environmental uncertainty.

Alice McCarthy

Stephen Connors has taken on the huge task of understanding how best to design energy solutions that address energy security, climate change, and other energy challenges. His work focuses on strategic planning in energy and the environment with the mission of deploying cost-effective and environmentally responsible energy solutions. As Director of the Analysis Group for Regional Energy Alternatives (AGREA) research group within the MIT Energy Initiative, Connors works on projects emphasizing the responsible evolution of regional energy infrastructures throughout the world.

Stephen Connors
AGREA Director
MIT Energy Initiative
“We are not just doing individual technologies assessments or top-down government or state policy,” Connors says. “Instead we are looking at the use case for these technologies, how they compete in the near term, and how does that set us up for really capturing the value of these technologies.”

AGREA was founded on the premise of designing energy systems that meet the needs, challenges and goals and uncertainties of a collective of stakeholders, including state governments, electrical utilities and consumer environmental groups. When Connors co-founded AGREA in 1988, he recalls it as a time of stalemate between building new power plants and urging energy conservation. “The name reflects that we were not taking sides or promoting certain technologies but trying to understand the dynamics of the system,” he explains. “Essentially new technology is better than old technology. And it was critical to getting people to think of a cost-effective, environmentally responsive evolution of the electricity infrastructure, not just different people’s favorite technologies.”

Twenty five years later, Connors’ work remains consistent with AGREA’s original vision. His research involves studying specific environmentally-responsible energy technologies in great depth as part of a multifactorial energy planning and deployment process. “We do not just look at individual technologies or portfolios of technologies in a static environment,” Connors explains. Instead, the goal is to see how to best utilize all of them over time in varying regions, climates, and economies. It also includes deployment strategies to address changes in regional or local energy demand even on a daily basis. He adds, “Our research is a deployment path for technologies taking into account that what is needed is not just a cost-effective and lower emission system but one that is robust and resilient.”

Innovations in SMART Grids

Connors describes three electric grids: the high-voltage power grid, the local low-power electrical grid in a particular neighborhood, and a third medium voltage system reflecting the contribution of renewable energy sources like wind farms and solar power plants. This last grid is attracting much of Connors’ research attention. “The more renewables in use, the further away from the high voltage grid they will be so that means the medium voltage grid needs to be smart as well.”

Additionally, Connors enjoys working at the grid/consumer interface where he sees a lot of opportunity to improve energy efficiency. “Reducing energy demand is vital to meet climate and energy security goals. We call this aggressive end use efficiency. It is the efficiency of turning things off.” Connors explains this practice will only expand as consumers continue to accept electric vehicles and other non-petroleum sources of energy. “What distinguishes the smart grid from the past is pervasive monitoring and feedback control. The grid was effectively an electron pipe and now we can substitute energy with information.”

High Penetration Renewables

As more renewable sources of energy are implemented to offset fossil fuel production and use, a different architecture invested in fast and flexible generation or electricity storage will be necessary. Since it will shift energy loads between various energy sources every component of the system requires a high level of coordination. Connors is putting this thinking into real-world practice with the Green Island project. Sponsored by the MIT Portugal Program, a collaboration between the Portuguese government and companies, Portuguese university partners and MIT-affiliated companies, Connors is helping the islands of the Azores invest in a reliable energy solution based on renewable sources to replace economies traditionally run on petroleum. “The Azores have geothermal, solar, and wind sources of energy. The real challenge is looking to see how they fit together on a day to day basis and year to year basis to see how we can evolve their islands to be energy self-sufficient,” he explains.

Electric Vehicle Recharging

While other scientists build newer generations of electric vehicles, Connors is looking at the dynamics of electric mobility to design an energy system addressing the challenges of electric recharging. “The worst nightmare of a utility is that everyone will charge their electric vehicle when they get home from work each day,” explains Connors who adds this is exactly the wrong time and will only add to the current peak load for electricity. However, an abundance of capacity sits unused in the current system overnight. “You can charge the vehicles when energy is cheap, abundant and clean and that will help coevolve electric mobility with a clean and low carbon emission system,” he adds.

Keeping it Fast and Flexible

Research groups like AGREA routinely partner with other MIT professors and companies involved in material science, developing new batteries, new control algorithms or other enabling technologies. “An enabling technology needs a path to market,” says Connors. Though his work is focused on the vision of the regional power system, his group’s scenarios—which are essentially bottom-up, engineering based—also serve as market development and analysis.

Industry benefits from understanding how Connors’ energy scenarios cast a light into the electric infrastructure of the future. “One of the areas where companies need to be focused is not just on the need for efficient electric generation technologies or smart and efficient end uses of technology but the fast and flexible aspect,” says Connors. Companies are realizing the importance of the operational dynamics of technologies not just their steady state performance. For example, power plants now have to be designed not just for baseline smooth operation but to fast ramp based upon the ever-changing situation in the power grid. Adds Connors, “That is an area where the new aspects of technology need to be captured because it is going to be a large factor in the value of future technology.”