Economic professor receives funding to development electric utility research lab

By University Communications

BOONE, N.C.—Over the past decade, Appalachian State University has amassed one of the largest and the most diverse portfolio of renewable energy facilities in the state of North Carolina. The university is home to the state’s largest wind turbine and leader of the Appalachian Energy Summit – an initiative that has saved the University of North Carolina system, together with industry partners, close to $500 million in avoided energy costs over the past six years.

And now, with Research Opportunities Initiative (ROI) funding from the University of North Carolina General Administration, Appalachian will be able to leverage its university-owned electric utility, New River Light and Power (NRLP), as an unprecedented UNC system asset to provide a collaborative platform for conducting energy-related research. NRLP’s service area of approximately seven square miles includes both the university campus and the Town of Boone, with a customer base of around 8,100.

“We are in the unique position to offer the entire UNC system access to a utility-based laboratory, and to further the potential for important research that will benefit the state and beyond,” Chancellor Sheri N. Everts said. “We are proud to be leaders in the state for energy conservation, as this is a natural next step in our commitment to sustainability.”

Under the leadership of Dr. Jeff Ramsdell, professor of sustainable technology and the built environment and director of the Appalachian Energy Center, and in close collaboration with UNC Charlotte, Appalachian will use the planning grant of nearly $50,000 to launch the North Carolina Integrated Electric Utility Research Laboratory (NCIEURlab).

In collaboration with Co-principal Investigator Dr. David T. Young, interim director of the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) at UNC Charlotte, the grant funds will be used to develop methodologies for managing the research platform, engage targeted funding sponsors and host a UNC system-wide workshop.

The first order of business, Ramsdell said, is “to develop the various policies, procedures and administrative and management processes necessary to ensure the integrity of the laboratory’s activities, adequate protection of NRLP’s interests, and fulfillment of all regulatory requirements.”

According to the grant proposal, NCIEURlab will “provide an unprecedented opportunity to integrate diverse research areas including high-voltage electricity distribution, distributed generation, advanced metering, smart-grid concepts, consumer behavior, rate design and policy.”

NRLP General Manager Ed Miller said, “This collaboration with EPIC and the other state institutions will benefit our research efforts around sustainability and climate concerns and will help us look at effective ways to transform the utility industry.”

Ramsdell concurred. “Access to a utility that is large enough and operating under regulation provides us with a special opportunity for discovery,” he said. “And, the ability to ultimately disseminate knowledge and broaden the education of our students.” He pointed out the utility offers three specific opportunities:

  1. Access to the grid and the ability to install quantification and measurement equipment and instruments onto an operating electric power system;
  2. Access to non-identifiable customer data from NRLP;
  3. Behavioral studies related to utility customers. For example, Ramsdell said, with further funding researchers might ask customers to volunteer to have equipment that monitors daily power usage installed in their homes. Behavioral research could determine if monitoring use changes behavior patterns. Ramsdell stressed all customer privacy would be protected.

Working with Ramsdell and Young are Appalachian co-principal investigators Dr. Todd Cherry, director of the Center for Economic Research and Policy Analysis and a professor in the Department of Economics; Dr. Brian Raichle, professor and chair, Department of Sustainable Technology and the Built Environment; Research Analyst Jason Hoyle, Appalachian Energy Center; and Miller from NRLP.

Once policies and processes are in place, Ramsdell hopes to offer an online vetting process for specific research projects. This would enable approved researchers to then apply for external grants with the added resource of the NCIEURlab. “This will advance the work we started with the Appalachian Energy Summit,” Ramsdell said. “The possibilities are enormous and they don’t exist anywhere else. This goes beyond collaboration. We are creating a resource for the whole system.”

Ramsdell added he was particularly proud of Appalachian’s leadership for green-lighting the project. “They could have balked,” he said. “But they didn’t. They let us put this idea forward. It is generous and visionary.”

About the 2016 ROI Grants

The University of North Carolina General Administration awarded grants totaling $1.7 million to support faculty research in areas of strategic importance to the state. Each funded project involves faculty partners from two or more UNC institutions. Faculty teams from UNC Charlotte, Appalachian State University, N.C. A&T State University, N.C. State University and UNC Chapel Hill will use the awards from the UNC Research Opportunities Initiative (ROI) to advance collaborative projects that aim to develop new metal-based manufacturing methods, apply state-of-the-art technologies to promote economic development across the state, improve electricity distribution and optimize manufacturing processes through data science. In addition to spanning multiple UNC campuses, the funded projects will involve several private and public sector partners, including the General Electric Global Research Center, BlueSwarf, New River Light and Power Company and Tetra Tech Engineering. This marks the second round of grant awards under UNC ROI, funded by a recurring $3 million annual appropriation from the 2014 General Assembly. First-round awardees have already leveraged the $6 million invested to date to attract $7.5 million in additional external grants. They also have filed 11 patent applications and started two companies.

About New River Light and Power

In 1915, Dr. Blanford Barnard Dougherty, president of Appalachian Training School, commissioned construction of Boone’s first electric generating plant, New River Light and Power (NRLP), on the South Fork of the New River. Today, NRLP, a non-profit operating unit of Appalachian State University, serves nearly 8,100 residential and commercial customers within the area in and surrounding the Town of Boone with power purchased from Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation, headquartered in Lenoir. As the first utility to serve northwestern North Carolina, NRLP established a tradition of responsible and prompt service. In April 2012, NRLP earned Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3) recognition from the American Public Power Association.

About Appalachian State University

Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 18,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.

View larger imageData gathering: NRLP General Manager Ed Miller is holding an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) device which, when installed at the customer site, will enable measurement of detailed, time-based information and frequent collection and transmittal of such information to the supplier.View larger imageNRLP Powerline Supervisor Frank Butler at the delivery point breaker which controls access to power supply.

Published: May 1, 2017 12:00am