K-State Professor Earns Award To Study Power Systems' Control

April 24, 1998

MANHATTAN, Kans. -- Now that the government has flipped the switch on utility regulation, the character of the entire power system could change. Ready to help smooth the transition to an open-market electricity system is Shelli K. Starrett, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Kansas State University.

The National Science Foundation granted Starrett one of its Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, awards in mid-April. The NSF only gives CAREER awards to non-tenured faculty in their first four years of a tenure-track or equivalent position at a United States academic institution. The purpose of the CAREER award is to recognize faculty early in their professional academic life, promoting their career research and teaching potential.

Starrett submitted a proposal that had to integrate a research component into the classroom. A panel of experts reviewed the proposal in December and recommended funding for the top proposals within the electrical power engineering field. Starrett is the single investigator in charge of her project focusing on power systems stability and control, her area of emphasis. This field studies the interconnected operation of the generators, transformers, transmission lines and controls which together comprise a power system.

"The country is interconnected with wires, like an interstate with few stops and a lot of traffic. The distribution systems are the gravel roads that lead to individual houses. I'm interested in keeping the high voltage systems, the interstates, operating together," Starrett said.

Utility deregulation will likely create some construction on the power system interstate, because planners will focus on profit, Starrett says. With regulation, one electric company owned the generators, high voltage lines and distribution wires. However, increased competition will allow different companies to each own a different power plant and possibly several companies to own the interconnecting wires. Starrett says that the output patterns of the power plants and transmission network could change drastically as customers vie for the lowest priced power generation.

Thus, Starrett says control of the system will be out of one supplier's hands. "People who own generators will want to have them all on at once to make more money, and may not base decisions on what is best for the system," she said.

New ways of controlling black-outs or surges are being called for because of increased competition. Starrett's CAREER award-winning proposal is to research uses of such devices that control electric flow in the system from locations outside of the standard power plant.

"The controllers have already been designed, but they're not being used to their potential. We're trying to help them work in the most coordinated and efficient way," Starrett said.

The NSF will grant Starrett $50,000 per year for the next four years, with an extra $10,000 equipment allowance. However, she could receive more if she finds collaborators willing to contribute funds that will be matched by the NSF.

Her research will help K-State students by improving the power engineering laboratory equipment. "We need more computers to simulate modern control in the lab, so we can teach advanced control theory to the students. It's important for them because the industry is changing so rapidly," Starrett said.

Starrett's CAREER grant research will also help the public adjust to utility deregulation. "We want to improve the reliability of the power system, because deregulation could strain it. The control devices we're testing are less expensive than replacing parts of the system. If we are smarter, it will make the system stronger," Starrett said.

Kansas State University
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