Graduate students to tackle advanced grid challenges through the DGRP

This fall, graduate students entering the Distinguished Graduate Research Program (DGRP) will work with Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) scientists and engineers through the WSU-PNNL Joint Institutes.

Established in 2018, the WSU-PNNL Joint Institutes promote collaboration between WSU and PNNL, expanding the impacts of research-, educational-, and training-programs in strategic areas for both institutions. DGRP students Charlotte Wertz and Benjamin McCornack will conduct their graduate research through the WSU-PNNL Advanced Grid Institute (AGI), where they will apply their knowledge about energy- and grid-systems to real-world challenges in order to transform the U.S. electrical system. The WSU-PNNL AGI focuses on modernizing and protecting the electric grid and supporting a more resilient and secure energy infrastructure for the nation.

“Addressing the challenges to the power grid will require students becoming well-trained engineers,” said Jeff Dagle, PNNL chief electrical engineer for grid resilience and AGI co-director. “The DGRP is a great mechanism for building these future engineers by equipping them with the skills they need.”

Noel Schulz, AGI co-director and Edmund O. Schweitzer III Chair in Power Apparatus Systems in the WSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, agrees. “This generation of students is passionate about saving the planet. Providing a conduit for graduate students to conduct advanced grid research will not only benefit the student, but also the AGI, WSU, and PNNL,” she said.

Schulz and Anamika Dubey, WSU and PNNL joint appointee and associate professor in the WSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, are WSU advisors, and Mark Rice and Jason Fuller are PNNL advisors for McCornack and Wertz respectively.

“Energy research is interdisciplinary science. Working collaboratively with WSU and PNNL scientists in the AGI provides students with an opportunity to understand how collaboration between national laboratories and academia can be leveraged to create larger impacts,” said Dubey.

During the four-year program, DGRP students spend the first two years working with faculty at WSU and scientists at PNNL while completing their graduate coursework, then transfer to PNNL for the remaining two years of their Ph.D. program to gain hands-on research experience with PNNL scientists.

“The DGRP is a unique opportunity to engage Ph.D. candidates during the formative part of their career. It’s a wonderful experience to work directly with students and their advisors on challenging grid problems,” said Jason Fuller, PNNL Group Lead for Electricity Security.

The DGRP was of interest to Wertz and McCornack in part because the research conducted in the AGI matched their interests and gave them access to the AGI community of researchers and AGI events, such as AGI day.

“Even though Ben and Charlotte had both been WSU students, we were able to attract them to our doctorate program because of the DGRP. The program helps recruit students that would have stopped their education after their undergraduate program or master’s degree and places them into an in-depth research program with national laboratory experience. The experience provided through the DGRP offers students a unique perspective that will aid them in creating teams in the future,” said Schulz.

Prior to joining the DGRP, Wertz participated in a year-long senior undergraduate team project to design a microgrid for an administration building on the Tulalip Indian Reservation. Schulz mentored the team and provided insight on how to incorporate energy sovereignty, sustainability, resilience, and education in their design. Wertz has also been working with Dubey on undergraduate research for the last year.  Her work has focused on the modeling and impact characterization of hurricanes and other tropical storms on the electric power grid resiliency.

Wertz’s graduate research will continue her focus on investigating the impact of extreme weather events on the power grid. Through the use of enhanced modeling and analysis, she will also propose planning solutions to improve the grid’s resilience to manage disruptions caused by these events.

“I am passionate about the transition to clean energy and how that can best happen while supporting communities. Although I knew I wanted to attend graduate school, I was conflicted about immediately making this transition after finishing my bachelor’s degree because I wanted to gain hands-on experience working with the industry. The DGRP program seemed like a perfect way to further my education while also gaining valuable work experience outside of a purely academic environment,” said Wertz.

McCornack previously worked for Schweitzer Engineering Laboratory for three years after finishing his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. In his work experience, he observed that many power system controller applications were limited in their flexibility and that there was an opportunity to better leverage real-time simulations alongside controllers.

With an interest in research and development, he became involved with the UI-India CollAborative for Smart DiStribution System with STorage (UI-ASSIST). Through his involvement, he considered getting a master’s degree at WSU. Schulz suggested instead of getting a master’s degree, McCornack should consider a doctorate degree and apply to be part of the DGRP. Now at WSU for his Ph.D., McCornack’s research will focus on modernizing control systems using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to tackle the new problems that are arising.

“Because of his industrial experience at SEL, he looks at challenges from a different angle. He knows how to ask the why and how that will lead to better innovation. As a result, Ben was a great fit for the DGRP,” said Schulz.