Swanson’s DC Energy Research Sparks Support

Issue Date: 
December 7, 2015

In the late 1880s, Pittsburgh industrialist George Westinghouse 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 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.

Over the past year, with the help of a $400,000 grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, the University of Pittsburgh’s Gregory Reed established the DC-AMPS program (Direct Current Architecture for Modern Power Systems) and has been working to bring DC technology to the forefront, as well as bringing local and regional companies, the City of Pittsburgh, and community partners into the fold.

Last month, Reed announced the receipt of another Hillman grant, totaling $2.5 million over three years, to build upon the initial success of the DC-AMPS program, to bring a DC power grid even closer to fruition, and to make Pitt and Pittsburgh the epicenter of an emerging DC power industry.

“We want to be the place where everybody comes to benchmark DC developments and to be a leading region of research and demonstration in this emerging technological field,” said Reed, director of Pitt’s Center for Energy in the Swanson School of Engineering, director of the school’s Electric Power Systems Lab, and a Pitt professor of electrical and computer engineering. “We want to draw more and more companies and end-users to the region to work with us, to be part of these important developments that are related to energy reliability and security, and to support economic development and job growth.”

Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher sees the grant as a boon for the University as it grows its presence in the energy field.

“We are grateful for the support of the Henry L. Hillman Foundation. This grant allows Pitt to build alliances across the technology community and strengthen our community and governmental partnerships,” he said. “Together, we can increase our understanding of the impact of DC technology and foster an environment for students and faculty to engage in impactful research and be part of exciting developments in energy and energy technology for the benefit of our region.”

Reed’s approach focuses on finding ways to, in the not-too-distant future, upgrade the longstanding AC power grid to more of a DC grid—which he believes has become a more efficient and logical way of addressing energy-delivery needs, especially in the 21st century and beyond.

“Your laptop runs on a few volts DC; it has to be converted from AC by that box, the converter on the power cord,” he said. The same is the case for our high-definition televisions, most appliances, cell phones, and other consumer devices and office and business equipment, including data centers and new forms of lighting. “Very few items today require three-phase alternating current. The use and development of today’s evolving energy mix, which includes more DC resources such as solar photovoltaics, as well as electric vehicles and battery storage systems, also make the transition to DC more sensible and viable for future power-delivery needs.”

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. 

“We’d like to develop DC microgrids, community microgrids in residential developments, offices, commercial buildings, and industrial facilities,” Reed said. “I’ve been working on this for well over a decade, and we know that DC offers a much better match between energy transmission and utilization in many applications.”

To achieve these ends, Reed and his team will work to develop better power electronics conversion and control systems (like the aforementioned box on your laptop’s power cord), better integration technologies for the power generated by DC microgrids, and possibly new electronic devices compatible with DC power.

In terms of microgrid development, Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering also recently announced a partnership with Duquesne Light, which will allow the utility to, through contributions from Pitt faculty, amass critical knowledge to help inform future grid design and potential new product and service offerings. Pitt will benefit as well, with the program being expected to expand research opportunities for students and faculty in the University’s energy and electric power programs.

The partnership is one of the first steps in Duquesne Light’s long-term strategy to reinforce its leadership in grid infrastructure, sustainability, and management. It will also further the utility company’s interest in new technologies that will be key to evolving the grid into a dynamic network that enables reliable, seamless two-way flow of power.


Details of the partnership include:

• Design and installation of an urban microgrid at Duquesne Light’s Woods Run Facility  on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. With support from the Swanson School’s Electric Power Systems Laboratory and its Electric Power Program, the installation will serve as a real-world laboratory to research microgrid resiliency and the integration of distributed and renewable energy resources into the electric power distribution grid, as well as other key enabling technology areas such as power electronics controllers, direct current (DC) infrastructure, energy storage systems, and smart grid technologies.

 • Duquesne Light will make a $500,000, multiyear financial contribution to help fund electric power research, energy efficiency, laboratory facilities, and equipment at Pitt. In addition, the company will provide the expertise to interconnect any new electric power laboratory facilities to the existing electric power 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,” said Reed, “and this continued support from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation will help in furthering that goal.”