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$20 million grant aims to improve New Mexico’s power grid |

$20 million grant aims to improve New Mexico’s power grid

Wine, cellos, cast-iron skillets: Some things just get better with age.

Alas, the nation’s aging power grid isn’t one of them.

The web of transmission and distribution lines, power plants and substations that carry currents from coast to coast is, in part, the product of a post-World War II clamor to modernize U.S. infrastructure.

These days, the average home pulls more kilowatt hours of electricity per day than it did in decades past, the threat of cyberattack brownouts looms and the antiquated system — devoid of easy storage solutions — is a hindrance in the drive toward a clean-energy future.

With the help of a substantial federal grant, researchers at New Mexico’s top universities hope to change all that.

In September, the National Science Foundation awarded a five-year, $20 million grant to a coalition that includes three New Mexico universities, Santa Fe Community College and Explora Children’s Museum. Their task? To figure out the best way to catapult New Mexico’s grid from 1950 to 2018 — and beyond.

“We’re not solving the entire world’s problems, but we’re trying to at least make a major contribution to the way the electricity grid functions,” said Andrea Mammoli, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of New Mexico who is one of the grant’s lead investigators.

UNM will receive more than $11 million. New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech will pull in $6.1 million and $1.7 million, respectively.

Santa Fe Community College will receive nearly $600,000 through the grant to help train energy professionals to work on the new grid technologies, and Explora is charged with community outreach and developing exhibits to teach the state’s younger set (and their parents) about the benefits of a modernized grid.

The key, Mammoli said, is to scale up by scaling down.

The current grid is a centralized system that delivers electricity to users from one location. Mammoli and his colleagues are devoting their research to so-called microgrids — a collection of neighborhood-sized networks that can either act independently, producing and distributing their own power, or tie into the larger grid when necessary.

Establishing microgrids with storage capabilities would allow for easier integration of alternative energies — say, wind and solar. And sectioning off the grid is a security upgrade, making it tougher for cyberattackers to target large populations.

The upgrades, he said, ideally will be integrated without having to replace the existing grid.

Mammoli said interest in microgrid technologies is booming in the energy sector. The grant gives New Mexico researchers a chance to lead the charge.

“We’re riding the crest of the wave,” he said. “I think we’re a little bit ahead already.”

With its copious sunshine and booming wind-energy industry, New Mexico is the ideal spot to try out microgrid technologies, Mammoli said. And researchers already have pegged perfectly sized test sites at which to do it — Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratories among them.

“We’re able to work with a number of different-sized installations to test and apply some of the solutions we develop as part of this project,” said William Michener, the project director for New Mexico EPSCoR, a federal program through which the funds will flow.

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