Iowa State University Receives Federal Grant for Power Distribution Grid Work • Iowa Capital Dispatch

As home electricity use increases due to modernization and climate change, Iowa State University researchers are working to keep the lights on and the power grid running smoothly with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The project, led by Grumman associate professor of electrical and computer engineering Zhaoyu Wang, will use data analysis and modeling to help improve the health and lifespan of distribution transformers, which drop voltage levels from the power grid enough for homes to connect and have power.

Using smart meters, which Wang said measure voltage and energy consumption every 15 minutes and can be found in many homes, and a big data platform through project partner SparkMeter, the team will create applications and models that will enable utilities to monitor the status of distribution transformers. It will enable them to know when they are at risk of breaking or how long they could last before needing to be replaced, possibly preventing outages before they happen.

“Certainly, we are all excited about this project … not just about the funding, it’s more about the potential impact,” Wang said.


Other partners in the project include the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative, Cedar Falls Utilities and AES. Wang said they will also work with a community in Indiana.

According to a news release from the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity, ISU’s project is one of eight selected to receive grants totaling $7.5 million. These initiatives aim to modernize the US power grid using data analytics, sensors and other technologies.

“These projects are important to making our electric grid stronger and safer,” said Office of Electricity Assistant Secretary Gene Rodrigues. “They will help businesses quickly identify and resolve issues and ensure a reliable power supply. We are laser-focused on rapid and widespread deployment to support America’s growing appetite for clean, affordable renewable energy.”

Traditionally, Wang said, utilities generally don’t check the status of distribution transformers, because there are so many and they used to be relatively cheap to replace. Services would wait until a transformer failed, causing a power outage, before replacing it.

“We call this the broken and fixed cycle,” Wang said.

But the cost of distribution transformers has tripled, Wang said, and utilities that need replacements may have to wait years to get replacements and replenish their inventory.

As homes increase their use of electricity through new appliances, electric vehicle chargers and increased air conditioning due to warmer summers, Wang said transformers are more likely to overload. They can handle being overloaded for a while before they break completely, he said, but that shortens their lifespan.

The data from the home’s smart meters can be used to determine which transformers are overloaded, allowing utilities to determine the health of their transformers and which ones should be prioritized for replacement, perhaps to a transformer capable of greater capacity.

This is called the “monitoring-predicting-maintenance” cycle, according to the ISU project summary, and it is hoped that it will lead to a more proactive approach to transformer maintenance, reducing the risk of power outages.

Wang said the team still needs to negotiate with the Department of Energy, but hopes to begin research and development in October. Field demonstrations of their work will begin after a year.

Having worked with Cedar Falls and Linn County on previous projects, Wang said he and the other researchers know the challenges utilities face as they prepare for an increasingly electrified future.

“We work very closely with the industry, we know their challenges, we know their problems,” Wang said. “They have seen the sharp increase in demand for electricity from the customer side, mainly due to the charging of electric cars … If every house has increases, what will be the problem with their system and will it overload their distribution transformer?”

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