Pictured above, from l. to r.: Satish Mahajan, director of Tech’s Center for Energy Systems Research (CESR), Robert Craven, research and development engineer for CESR, Ali Arzani, research assistant professor for CESR, and Michael Aikens, director of Tech’s Center for Rural Innovation (TCRI) stand in front of the HILLTOP platform developed by Tennessee Tech and MIT that will be used in their Appalachian Regional Commission-funded electric grid research.

Modernization backed with largest grant in Tech history

Cookeville – Tennessee Tech University has entered new territory as a national research institution; receiving the single largest research grant in the university’s 108-year history and tasked with a mission to modernize aging electric grids by leveraging the energy capabilities of the Appalachian region.

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) – an economic development partnership between the federal government and 13 states across Appalachia – awarded Tech a $10 million grant to lead a four-state consortium that will help rural electric utilities and energy supply companies deploy smart grid technologies to better serve their communities and address challenges such as the rolling blackouts that have impacted consumers across the country during times of peak energy usage.

Researchers will consider factors such as how to better plan and position electric vehicle (EV) charging stations to most effectively manage the strain on electric grids. The project will also address challenges associated with integrating renewable energy sources – such as wind and solar energy – as well as managing large-scale battery storage. Newer battery technologies use materials that are abundant in the Appalachian region, including iron and ethane.

“It is a testament to the strength and reputation of Tennessee Tech that we were specifically chosen by ARC to lead this effort to revitalize the backbone of our electrical power system for future generations. We appreciate their trust and confidence,” said John Liu, vice president for research at Tech. “It’s easy to take our power supply for granted, but sustainable solutions that engage the natural resources of our region to modernize our energy infrastructure are needed. We look forward to working with our partners to that end.”

The project uses a dedicated computer platform called HILLTOP, created by Tennessee Tech and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Experiments will be performed with new technologies in a real-time simulated environment so that electric utilities can provide cost-effective testing and solutions prior to the implementation. Ali Arzani, research assistant professor in Tech’s Center for Energy Systems Research (CESR), says Tech will also train partner institutions on using the HILLTOP platform.

Within the university, Tech’s Center for Rural Innovation (TCRI) and CESR will helm the project. Tech will be the principal university on the project, leading a partnership that includes MIT, The MIT Lincoln Lab, Pennsylvania State University and West Virginia University, as well as Ohio’s BRITE Energy Innovators, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and Cookeville-based The Biz Foundry.

Tech expects that, within one year of the project’s completion, it will have served and improved 468 businesses including seven rural electric utilities, one energy tech startup, 60 electrical engineering firms, and 400 freelance software developers. TCRI will also conduct economic impact analyses for the electric utilities, assessing the impact of both the cost savings for the utility itself and the downstream effect on consumers and businesses. 

“This project is a natural fit for Tennessee Tech as it allows us another opportunity to leverage the innovation and knowledge of our students and faculty to meaningfully improve the lives of individuals, families, and small businesses across our region, which has been at the core of TCRI’s mission all along,” said Michael Aikens, director of TCRI and administrative chair of Tech’s Rural Reimagined Grand Challenge. “We are grateful to ARC for this opportunity and eager to get to work on behalf of the 191 counties across Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia that this research will serve.”

“Our electric grids are under significant stress and modernization is overdue. There is an obvious need for the ideas and advancements that Tennessee Tech and our partner institutions can provide,” said Satish M. Mahajan, director of Tech’s CESR and professor of electric and computer engineering. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Tech to lead on real-world solutions that rural electric utilities and co-ops could eventually apply and replicate across the country to lower costs, improve reliability, and expand adoption of green energy technologies.”

ARC’s grant announcement comes as Tech recently celebrated a record for externally funded research in fiscal year 2023, topping $36.3 million.

Photo courtesy of Tennessee Tech.

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