ECpE assistant professor earns first research grant since joining ISU

Keeping the power grid running efficiently and effectively is crucial to the continuation of our way of life. Since joining Iowa State University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in August 2019, Assistant Professor Hugo Villegas Pico has been conducting research aimed at improving the reliability of the power grid in order to prevent untimely disconnections in times of crisis or natural disaster. Recently, Villegas Pico received his first grant toward his work, provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The grant will begin in August of 2020 and end in July of 2023. The grant will provide over $250,000 toward research to ensure that future power grids integrate smoothly with renewable energy sources, as well as maintain optimal performance during high stress periods, including natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes.

“This grant supports the development and incorporation of mathematical representations of converter-based assets with grid-forming capability into legacy power system simulation models,” Villegas Pico said. “Also, this grant backs research on polynomial abstractions of power systems with converter-based assets to study their dynamic response under uncertain operational conditions, as well as to support the design of robust controls and state estimators.”

This NSF project is a collaborative effort between ISU and the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Villegas Pico said the first priorities of the project are to study the performance of the power grid during times of stress, and to search for ways to make the grid more resilient.

“The first goal of the project is to elucidate relatively good models of grid-forming assets to study in silico the performance of power grids with massive penetrations of converter-based resources during severe disturbances,” Villegas Pico said. “The second goal is to abstract these models via high-order Taylor polynomials to design controls and state estimators that are robust to uncertainties originating from the variability of non-conventional energy resources, like solarand wind.”

Disconnections of significant amounts of converter-based resources have been an issue in recent history. Most notably, disconnections occurred during 2016-17 wildfires in California, as well as during a string of tornados in Southern Australia in 2016. Villegas Pico said he hopes this project helps to prevent those disconnections from happening in the future.

“My hope is that the outcomes of this research will be instrumental to prevent undesirable disconnections of future grid-forming resources during severe disturbances, such as transmission faults as a result of wildfires or tornados,” Villegas Pico said. “This research is significant because the outcomes will translate into simulation tools that can be used by power system analysts to detect with confidence deleterious responses of converter-based grids during disturbances, as well as to design suitable controls to prevent, for instance, blackout events, which can hinder the progress of our society.”

Villegas Pico primarily works with the faculty of the Electric Power and Energy Systems group and Electric Power Research Center (EPRC) at ISU. Villegas Pico said that working with these groups has given him valuable support and insight into his research.

“I feel privileged to work along with Professor Venkataraman Ajjarapu, Professor Ian Dobson, Distinguished Professor James McCalley, and Assistant Professor Zhaoyu Wang as well as Dr. Anne Kimber,” Villegas Pico said. “They have professionally supported my research directions and efforts since joining ISU last August 2019.”