Professor Ali Mehrizi-Sani is studying microgrids to help keep the power on during catastrophic events.

Professor Ali Mehrizi-Sani is studying microgrids to help keep the power on during catastrophic events.

When a natural disaster strikes, the failure of the electric power grid often makes the catastrophe even worse.

WSU researchers were part of a team who received a $1.2 million Department of Energy grant to design a sophisticated circuit breaker for “microgrids,” or power grids that are on small, more localized scales. The researchers hope that the work will someday help allow critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and police stations, to keep running on their own tiny electric power grid during a massive power failure.

“The microgrid exists to provide power separate from the main grid. In the event that the main grid goes down, the microgrid will detect something is wrong and disconnect,” said Ali Mehrizi-Sani, the lead researcher on the project and assistant professor in the School of EECS in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture.

In a power failure situation, a microgrid sensor will detect a problem with voltage on the power grid, which might be anything from a tree bringing down a single power line to a major city-wide outage.

Within milliseconds, the sensor will send a command to the circuit breaker switches to disconnect the microgrid from the main system. While such switches already exist, they are currently too slow to operate at the high voltage levels experienced in this type of situation—which is more than 20 kilovolts, Mehrizi-Sani said. The researchers are working to use an amplifier to increase the impedance, a measure of resistance to current flow, to bring down the current to a level that existing switches can handle quickly.

They hope to test a prototype system at a naval shipyard in Pennsylvania in the next two years.

Putting the technology to use in such a setting presents huge challenges, Mehrizi-Sani said. “It’s not a research lab,” he said. “We will test everything extremely rigorously.”

Eventually, the researchers hope to create multi-microgrid systems that would be much harder to damage in a disaster than the traditional power grid. Because they would be decentralized, the systems could work independently of each other in a disaster.