Elaine Liu: Charging ahead

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MIT senior Elaine Siyu Liu doesn’t own an electric car, or any car. But she sees the impact of electric vehicles (EVs) and renewables on the grid as two pieces of an energy puzzle she wants to solve.

The U.S. Department of Energy reports that the number of public and private EV charging ports nearly doubled in the past three years, and many more are in the works. Users expect to plug in at their convenience, charge up, and drive away. But what if the grid can’t handle it?

Electricity demand, long stagnant in the United States, has spiked due to EVs, data centers that drive artificial intelligence, and industry. Grid planners forecast an increase of 2.6 percent to 4.7 percent in electricity demand over the next five years, according to data reported to federal regulators. Everyone from EV charging-station operators to utility-system operators needs help navigating a system in flux.

That’s where Liu’s work comes in.

Liu, who is studying mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), is interested in distribution — how to get electricity from a centralized location to consumers. “I see power systems as a good venue for theoretical research as an application tool,” she says. “I’m interested in it because I’m familiar with the optimization and probability techniques used to map this level of problem.”

Liu grew up in Beijing, then after middle school moved with her parents to Canada and enrolled in a prep school in Oakville, Ontario, 30 miles outside Toronto.

Liu stumbled upon an opportunity to take part in a regional math competition and eventually started a math club, but at the time, the school’s culture surrounding math surprised her. Being exposed to what seemed to be some students’ aversion to math, she says, “I don’t think my feelings about math changed. I think my feelings about how people feel about math changed.”

Liu brought her passion for math to MIT. The summer after her sophomore year, she took on the first of the two Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program projects she completed with electric power system expert Marija Ilić, a joint adjunct professor in EECS and a senior research scientist at the MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems.

Predicting the grid

Since 2022, with the help of funding from the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), Liu has been working with Ilić on identifying ways in which the grid is challenged.

One factor is the addition of renewables to the energy pipeline. A gap in wind or sun might cause a lag in power generation. If this lag occurs during peak demand, it could mean trouble for a grid already taxed by extreme weather and other unforeseen events.

If you think of the grid as a network of dozens of interconnected parts, once an element in the network fails — say, a tree downs a transmission line — the electricity that used to go through that line needs to be rerouted. This may overload other lines, creating what’s known as a cascade failure.

“This all happens really quickly and has very large downstream effects,” Liu says. “Millions of people will have instant blackouts.”

Even if the system can handle a single downed line, Liu notes that “the nuance is that there are now a lot of renewables, and renewables are less predictable. You can’t predict a gap in wind or sun. When such things happen, there’s suddenly not enough generation and too much demand. So the same kind of failure would happen, but on a larger and more uncontrollable scale.”

Renewables’ varying output has the added complication of causing voltage fluctuations. “We plug in our devices expecting a voltage of 110, but because of oscillations, you will never get exactly 110,” Liu says. “So even when you can deliver enough electricity, if you can’t deliver it at the specific voltage level that is required, that’s a problem.”

Liu and Ilić are building a model to predict how and when the grid might fail. Lacking access to privatized data, Liu runs her models with European industry data and test cases made available to universities. “I have a fake power grid that I run my experiments on,” she says. “You can take the same tool and run it on the real power grid.”

Liu’s model predicts cascade failures as they evolve. Supply from a wind generator, for example, might drop precipitously over the course of an hour. The model analyzes which substations and which households will be affected. “After we know we need to do something, this prediction tool can enable system operators to strategically intervene ahead of time,” Liu says.

Dictating price and power

Last year, Liu turned her attention to EVs, which provide a different kind of challenge than renewables.

In 2022, S&P Global reported that lawmakers argued that the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) wholesale power rate structure was unfair for EV charging station operators.

In addition to operators paying by the kilowatt-hour, some also pay more for electricity during peak demand hours. Only a few EVs charging up during those hours could result in higher costs for the operator even if their overall energy use is low.

Anticipating how much power EVs will need is more complex than predicting energy needed for, say, heating and cooling. Unlike buildings, EVs move around, making it difficult to predict energy consumption at any given time. “If users don’t like the price at one charging station or how long the line is, they’ll go somewhere else,” Liu says. “Where to allocate EV chargers is a problem that a lot of people are dealing with right now.”

One approach would be for FERC to dictate to EV users when and where to charge and what price they’ll pay. To Liu, this isn’t an attractive option. “No one likes to be told what to do,” she says.

Liu is looking at optimizing a market-based solution that would be acceptable to top-level energy producers — wind and solar farms and nuclear plants — all the way down to the municipal aggregators that secure electricity at competitive rates and oversee distribution to the consumer.

Analyzing the location, movement, and behavior patterns of all the EVs driven daily in Boston and other major energy hubs, she notes, could help demand aggregators determine where to place EV chargers and how much to charge consumers, akin to Walmart deciding how much to mark up wholesale eggs in different markets.

Last year, Liu presented the work at MITEI’s annual research conference. This spring, Liu and Ilić are submitting a paper on the market optimization analysis to a journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Liu has come to terms with her early introduction to attitudes toward STEM that struck her as markedly different from those in China. She says, “I think the (prep) school had a very strong ‘math is for nerds’ vibe, especially for girls. There was a ‘why are you giving yourself more work?’ kind of mentality. But over time, I just learned to disregard that.”

After graduation, Liu, the only undergraduate researcher in Ilić’s MIT Electric Energy Systems Group, plans to apply to fellowships and graduate programs in EECS, applied math, and operations research.

Based on her analysis, Liu says that the market could effectively determine the price and availability of charging stations. Offering incentives for EV owners to charge during the day instead of at night when demand is high could help avoid grid overload and prevent extra costs to operators. “People would still retain the ability to go to a different charging station if they chose to,” she says. “I’m arguing that this works.”

Source: Energy -


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