Hillman Gives Grant to Aid Project on Direct-Current Power

Issue Date: 
September 22, 2014

Is Pittsburgh to be the home of a second War of the Currents?

In the late 1880s, Pittsburgh native son George Westinghouse (using the work and genius of Nikola Tesla) won the campaign to base the United States’ electric power grid on alternating current (AC). Thomas Edison, a proponent of direct current (DC), tried to paint AC as dangerous, but as things stood at the time, an AC grid was cheaper and more efficient, could carry electricity over longer distances, and was easier to build—so it prevailed.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Bopaya Bidanda, John Camillus, and Gregory Reed think that it might be time to redirect our attention to direct current. Equipped with a recent $800,000 grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation for “Leveraging DC Power and the Business of Humanity® to Transform the Pittsburgh Region,” the three professors are approaching the promise of DC power from two distinct perspectives.

Reed’sGregory Reed approach specifically addresses DC technology and is focused on finding ways to, in the not-too-distant future, convert the longstanding AC power grid to a DC grid, which he believes has become a more efficient and logical way of addressing energy delivery needs in the 21st century and beyond.

“Your laptop runs on a few volts DC, but it has to be converted from AC by that box, the converter on the power cord,” he says. The same is the case for our high-definition televisions, most appliances, cell phones, and other consumer devices and office equipment. “Very few items today require three-phase alternating current. The use and development of today’s evolving energy mix makes the transition to DC more sensible and viable for future power delivery needs.”

Reed is interim director of Pitt’s Center for Energy, director of the Swanson School of Engineering’s Electric Power Initiative, and a professor of electrical and computer engineering. He and members of his lab are also advancing research into high-voltage DC systems, which present the potential of developing a commercially viable high-voltage DC grid. “Both academia and industry have made great strides in DC technology development, which will be a game changer in modernizing and securing the nation’s grid,” he says, “and this support from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation will help in furthering that goal.

“We’d like to develop DC microgrids, community microgrids in residential developments, offices, commercial buildings, and industrial facilities,” he added. “I’ve been working on this for more than a decade, and DC offers a much better match between energy transmission and use.”

Over the next year, Reed’s group will develop new DC concepts, designs, and technology. He also hopes to find ways to engage the marketplace, both on industrial and consumer levels, in the project.

FromJohn Camillus a second perspective, John Camillus, the Donald R. Beall Professor of Strategic Management in Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, and Bopaya Bidanda, the Ernest E. Roth Professor and chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, will use the Henry L. Hillman Foundation grant to address the potential of DC technology to positively impact the economy, the natural environment, and the quality of life especially for those at the lower end of the income spectrum.

Camillus and Bidanda embrace DC as a means of advancing their Business of Humanity® project, which seeks to combine economic growth and social benefit. DC technology fits into that project because it offers the promise of highly efficient, renewable, green, distributed power generation that can support economic growth and renewal. They explored this in a major international conference they organized in Prague in October 2013. The conference on “Energizing Low-Income Communities: The Promise of DC Technology” was attended by 80 participants from three continents—Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto among them.

The Henry L. Hillman grant will advance several Business of Humanity® projects seeking to demonstrate and enable the social and economic benefits of DC technology, especially in low-income areas of Pittsburgh. The grant is part of the Henry L. Hillman Foundation’s emerging focus on making Pittsburgh a demonstration city for innovative technologies that attract international attention and that create opportunities for new partnerships and sources of funding support. 

“PracticallyBopaya Bidanda speaking, we’re looking to show people why it’s important and possible to use DC power to improve the lives of people who are less fortunate,” Bidanda says. “One of the ways we’re going to do this is to establish DC-powered businesses—some here in Pittsburgh, especially Homewood, and others in India. We expect that both locations will greatly benefit from sharing locally developed technologies and applications.”

Because most of our energy use is DC, it’s much easier and less expensive to develop off-grid power storage on a local level, Bidanda says. For example, installing solar panels, storing some of that power in batteries, and using it to power a small village on DC could “really change the life of that village. It can be transformative. And even looking at long-distance transmission, it’s beginning to become a more attractive alternative to AC.”

Camillus adds, “DC is green. DC benefits the environment. Local, renewable energy generation is naturally DC, not AC. And DC lighting and motors are vastly more efficient. There is enormous potential for businesses that take advantage of the economies and government incentives offered by DC. And shifting from AC to DC will be a rich source of new jobs that we intend to tap in Pittsburgh.”

The three professors envision eventually installing a microgrid—a self-sufficient, geographically contained energy system—at a new housing development or a university campus, as an example. The grid would create electricity via solar panels, small wind turbines, fuel cells, and gas-fired generators and store some of the power in batteries. The electricity would be delivered and used as DC, significantly reducing or even eliminating the need for conversion from AC to DC and, thereby, saving energy typically lost as heat in AC systems.

“We’re not necessarily saying Edison was right,” Reed says. “He wasn’t in his time. But he is now.”