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Q&A: Pecan Street researcher Robert Fares

Assistant professor Michael Webber, in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, leads a team of graduate students who are working on a number of research projects in conjunction with Pecan Street Inc. that are focused on everything from water usage to renewable energy. The Cockrell School spoke to one of Webber’s students, Robert Fares, about his work involving community energy storage and how it can be used as an alternative during power outages.

Could you explain the problem you're addressing in your research?

The essential problem my research addresses is that the present electric grid has essentially no ability to store energy. If the grid (an electric energy distribution system) had ample storage assets, energy could be produced and delivered in a more efficient, less costly and more reliable way. My economic analysis of community energy storage used for load shifting shows how storage can exploit differences in real-time prices that occur because of the grid's energy-on-demand architecture. My analysis of community energy storage used for islanding shows how storage at the distribution level can increase electric reliability when upstream energy supplies are cut off.

What is islanding and why can you do this at Pecan Street?

Islanding is the process through which a group of distributed electricity generators and/or distributed energy storage devices disconnects from the main electric grid during an outage, and then shifts to an isolated-microgrid operating mode. The distributed energy storage balances production from distributed energy generation with local electric load in real time. I modeled community energy storage coupled with seven homes with rooftop photovoltaic panels operating as an islanded microgrid during an outage.

Right now, there is no community energy storage deployed in the Mueller neighborhood, and no houses in Pecan Street's smart-grid research study have the ability to island during an outage. That being said, Pecan Street's vast experience in data collection and work with industry on grid intelligence and automation is an essential part of enabling islanding capabilities in the future. Standards such as IEEE 1547 make an islanding scenario like I've modeled difficult to realize. Nevertheless, I think my research shows that there is impetus for rules and codes to enable a community-level battery to work with rooftop photovoltaic panels and island a community during an outage.

Have you written anything on community energy storage?

I've written a paper on my islanding analysis that I will present at the 223rd Meeting of the Electrochemical Society in May. The paper has been accepted for publication and will be available at the time of the conference. The abstract is available and can be found online.