- Feature Stories
- News Flash
- The Fence
- Beyond the Cut
- Inspire Innovation
By: Melissa Silmore (TPR'85)
On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein’s troops march into neighboring Kuwait. International condemnation and economic sanctions quickly follow. Tensions escalate. On January 17, 1991, coalition forces begin aerial bombardment of the Iraqi force. Days later, reports surface of an unexpected disaster. In an effort to thwart U.S. Marines from coming ashore, the Iraqis have opened valves at a key oil terminal, intentionally creating what becomes one of the largest spills in history. Millions of barrels are dumped into the Persian Gulf. The slick is 5 inches thick and covers an area the size of the island of Hawaii.
On another hot August afternoon in 2003, air conditioners are working overtime. One high-voltage transmission line in northeastern Ohio begins to sag with the overload. It brushes a nearby unpruned tree and shuts down. The utility’s alarm fails to sound. Within 90 minutes, three additional lines sag into trees and switch off, forcing other lines to carry their power. Those overtaxed lines soon fail, resulting in cascading blackouts through southeastern Canada and eight northeastern U.S. states. Approximately 50 million people lose power for two days.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake strikes off the coast of Japan, followed by a powerful tsunami that travels 6 miles inland. Three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant lose power and, consequently, cooling. As workers scramble to cool the reactors, a hydrogen explosion occurs. Officials attempt to cool them with seawater, and more explosions ensue. Fire breaks out. Radiation is released into the air, ground, and water. The government calls for voluntary evacuation within 20 miles.
Incidents like these dramatically spotlight our vulnerability when it comes to energy—limited resources, accidents, intentional terrorism. Less sensational, but equally critical, are other issues. Energy production, transmission, and consumption continue to impact our environment. U.S. foreign policy is constrained by dependence on foreign oil—costly dependence. Rising gasoline prices eat away at family budgets. Reliance on energy-hungry technology is steadily increasing. And today’s grid, our interconnected system of electricity generation and distribution, is so antiquated that Thomas Edison would recognize many components. Is it any wonder that energy remains a priority on the world’s agenda?
These are the concerns on the minds of the men and women gathered in Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley in March 2011—the same memorable month of the Fukushima meltdown. The 66 professionals are leaders from industry, government, and academia. They include CEOs of major corporations, distinguished professors, and innovative entrepreneurs. They’ve come together to discuss how Carnegie Mellon University can lead the way to a sustainable energy future.
The presentation turns to the groundbreaking research currently under way in all corners and colleges of the university: Chemical engineers who are developing fuel cells for tomorrow’s automobiles. Materials scientists who are creating innovative substances to capture carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust streams. Architects who are designing energy-efficient office buildings and control systems. Engineering and public policy researchers who are developing analytic tools to help policymakers.
Long fascinated by electricity and power systems, Gabriela Hug-Glanzmann earned a PhD in electrical engineering in her native Switzerland. Soon after, in 2008, she accepted a position as asset management engineer at Canada’s Hydro One, whose electricity transmission system accounts for about 96% of Ontario’s transmission capacity. Just a few months into the job, she received a call from Marija Ilic, who is director of Carnegie Mellon’s Electric Energy Systems Group (EESG), which is comprised of faculty and graduate students from several colleges at Carnegie Mellon and from universities around the world. The group is working on solutions for the world’s future multi-billion-dollar electric energy consumption. Would Hug-Glanzmann be interested in joining them? She says she wasn’t looking for a faculty position, but it was a “great opportunity.” By 2009, she and her husband were relocating again, this time to Pittsburgh.
Today, Hug-Glanzmann is co-director of EESG, working on methods of “optimization and control in electric power systems,” or ways to best integrate various elements that affect the U.S. electric grid. She’s particularly interested in better utilizing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. “My goal is a sustainable, green future,” she says simply.
But it’s easier said than done. A primary complication is that, by definition, these renewable sources are intermittent—available only with windy conditions or a shining sun—and that means traditional fossil fuels must fill the gap. However, repeatedly ramping up a natural-gas plant every time the wind dies down is incredibly inefficient and increases polluting emissions.(Continued …)