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SCU smart grid provides new opportunities for engineering students
For years, Joe Sugg, assistant vice president of university operations, has been working on an energy strategy for SCU. Now, with the support of Sustainable Silicon Valley (a consortium of businesses, governments and civic organizations) and Valence Energy (a company founded by a group of SCU engineering alumni to optimize energy generation and consumption), the University is embarking on a Smart MicroGrid project that will maximize the efficient use of energy, furthering the University toward its climate neutrality goals and its ability to ensure the campus’ energy needs are met in the event of an emergency such as a major earthquake. (Ed. note: Since this article went to press, Valence Energy was successfully sold to Serious Materials. Our alums will continue their work with the University as employees of Serious Materials. Read more here.)
“With our ability to generate and distribute power through our solar installations and backup generators, and with smart building controls for lighting, HVAC, and other energy use installed in one of our buildings on campus, we now have the tools we need to start developing the microgrid that can help us operate our facility as an island, disconnected from the local utility,” said Sugg. This summer, the first phase of testing began; eventually, the plan is for the project to be scaled up to include the entire campus.
A key component of the smart grid is the ability to monitor energy use to identify problems and balance load. Using a Cisco mediator that “talks” to the smart building controls, Valence Energy has created a web-based dashboard to receive and respond to the incoming information.
“This is a great project for us in the School of Engineering on a number of levels,” said Tim Healy, professor of electrical engineering. “Partnering with Valence Energy is exciting; these are SCU engineering graduates who worked so successfully with us on our 2007 Solar Decathlon entry. Partnering with them and witnessing their continuing impact on the field of sustainable energy use is a privilege. Also, with our expanding focus on energy education, this project provides unprecedented accessibility to cutting-edge energy management and technologies, and an unparalleled opportunity for our students to witness engineering in action right here on campus. Students will be able to run optimization calculations and estimate building energy use, and then see how closely their findings approximate the actual situation. Having a ‘front-row seat’ as the university negotiates the various aspects of going off-grid will provide the kind of education that cannot be found in a textbook. It is just the kind of project-based learning we love here at SCU!”
Sugg, who has a background in civil engineering and 30 years of facilities management (much of it on Air Force Bases), sees a great benefit to the university beyond the primary function. “Developing partnerships with state and federal governments, solidifying and extending the partnerships we developed in Silicon Valley through our participation in two Solar Decathlon competitions, and the educational benefit to our students are just a few other outcomes of this project,” he said.
When asked what prompted him to undertake a project of this magnitude, Sugg said in his typical understated manner, “I abhor the staus quo.” That is as good a reason as any!