Buildings and the power grids they are connected to are traditionally designed and operated separately. The topics are usually taught separately as well, with architectural engineers learning to design every aspect of a building and power systems engineers learning to operate grids effectively.
But in modern practice, the line between the two areas is increasingly blurred thanks to new power sources and options available to end-users. Future engineers at the College of Engineering and Applied Science are getting experience with this developing dynamic thanks to a course that is so new and unique, there isn’t even a textbook for it yet.
“I love pursuing crazy, big, ‘research-y’ ideas and I like talking about them with students. But I also truly believe in keeping courses as up-to-date as possible with what industry needs,” said Assistant Professor Kyri Baker, who developed and teaches the new Grid Connected Systems class. “I am not aware of another course at CU Boulder – or even in the country – that focuses solely on building-to-grid interactions from both qualitative and quantitative perspectives right now. This is education that students will need and that industry is asking for.”
Baker is a new faculty member in civil, environmental and architectural engineering and a member of the Water-Energy Nexus Interdisciplinary Research Theme. She developed this course directly out of her research, which looks at building-to-grid optimization and changes to power demand and the grid as more renewable energy sources are introduced. Other aspects of her work explore how climate change and severe weather events may threaten the ability of the grid to reliably deliver power to end-users.
End-users are increasingly enrolling in renewable energy programs, buying their energy from local aggregators instead of the traditional utility company or using green technology like solar panels. Each of those aspects requires more integration between the systems and buildings for future engineers to navigate.
“All of this is transforming the way we receive electricity and the way the grid operates,” Baker said.
She said she works to integrate current events, coding skills and group learning activities into the class. The class has discussed the city of Boulder’s move toward a municipal electric utility and learned to use Python to simulate cost-effective electric vehicle charging under different electricity pricing frameworks.
“In addition to concepts like optimization, machine learning and Python programming that help students make buildings smarter and more grid-interactive, I also make sure the students can answer fundamental questions on both the building and grid side like ‘what happens when I flip on a light switch?’” she said. “Even if you're not a hardcore energy researcher, knowing where your energy comes from, how you are using electricity, how you are being charged for electricity, and the outlook of our energy future are things that I think everyone should know and that I cover in the course.”
Taylor Burdge is auditing the class while working as a consultant within WSP’s Sustainability, Energy, and Climate Change team. In that position, she has seen firsthand how things like grid-connected renewables are changing utility rate structures and system dispatch theory.
“Using a programming language like Python is extremely helpful because you can automate iterative modeling processes that are necessary for understating and optimizing these evolving energy systems,” she said. “Kyri’s class is unique because we’re learning and using these powerful data science tools for real-world energy applications. Academia tends to be a few steps ahead of Industry and Kyri’s insights into where the industry is going are valuable.”
Daniel Katzman, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, said he took the class to meet a requirement for the Energy Engineering Minor and because of his interest in working with renewable energy. He said he has enjoyed sharing the classroom with undergraduate and graduate level students and has learned a lot so far.
Associate Dean for Education Ken Anderson said the course is a valuable to students in several ways.
“I am excited that Assistant Professor Kyri Baker is offering our students the chance to gain valuable skills in programming, machine learning and optimization while working on a problem domain that sits right at the intersection of research and practical applications. Not only is she making progress on important issues related to sustainable energy systems, the grid and the built environment, but she is producing students with the skills and knowledge needed by industry, research labs and government organizations working in this space,” he said. “This is the type of integrated and hands-on curriculum that we like to provide to all of our CU engineering students.”
Because there is no textbook for the class, Baker pulls from publicly available documents and guides created by companies, researchers and government organizations leading the field. She also pulls from her past experience working at NREL in both the buildings group and the power systems group. That has given her an interesting perspective that she hopes will translate to this class and possibly to a textbook she authors in the future.
“My overwhelming feeling is that in order to pursue a clean energy future, grid engineers and buildings engineers need to collaborate more and develop a better understanding of how one system can help and interact with the other,” she said. “That starts with education.”