A new microgrid control laboratory in the UCF College of Engineering and Computer Science is preparing the next generation of engineers to operate the modern grid and meet the rapidly increasing need for sustainable, affordable and reliable energy.
The lab, which is co-sponsored by Florida Power & Light (FPL) and GE Digital, is a state-of-the-art research facility for faculty and students. Located on the first floor of Research 1 on the main campus, it features control-center equipment and software that students can use to simulate and test real-life grid control operations, including finding ways to optimize and secure the grid of the future.
“This new facility is exactly the kind of strategic partnership that makes UCF a premiere choice for students with future-focused career goals.” — UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright
“This new facility is exactly the kind of strategic partnership that makes UCF a premiere choice for students with future-focused career goals. GE Digital and FPL have been both philanthropic investors and design collaborators in this lab, ensuring our students in this field will be industry-ready on day one of their careers,” says UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright. “It’s a win-win. Our students get a leading education in a lab environment, and both companies open up a pipeline of incredible talent for their workforce.”
Kwasi Opoku, a doctoral student studying electrical engineering, was one of the students FPL and GE Digital sought input from during the design phase of the lab to provide feedback on the equipment and furnishings that would be helpful for students.
Opoku, who is from Ghana, says for years he has been intrigued by power systems, and the idea of incorporating renewables, like solar and wind. He recalls living in Ghana when conventional power sources were insufficient and supplies had to be rationed.
“It was a national conversation about power and the options being considered,” he says. “That’s where the conversation began for me.”
Opoku was originally drawn to UCF after becoming aware of the RISES (Resilient, Intelligent and Sustainable Energy Systems) faculty cluster. The collaboration brings together UCF researchers from multiple colleges who are working to develop sustainable and resilient energy systems and storage.
Opoku’s area of research is power system protection and specifically finding new ways to detect faults in microgrids and renewables. He’s looking forward to using the lab’s testbed and hardware-in-the-loop simulation.
“You don’t always have hardware available to test, and usually you use simulation only. This is as close to real-life as you can get,” he says.
Max Carroll ’21 completed his bachelor’s degree in the summer in electrical engineering with focus on power and renewable energy. He was inspired to pursue a career in energy after experiences in Germany, where he grew up and still visits frequently.
“When you drive through Germany you see windmills and renewable energy sources everywhere, and when I went back, they were expanding on it, and adding panels,” says Carroll. “I said to myself, ‘How do these things actually work?’ ”
Now a graduate student studying electrical engineering at UCF, Carroll is planning on spending a lot of time in the new space.
“I’ll be doing my research there, as all the tools I need are in there. But I can also study there,” he says. “The computers have virtually all the programs there that I’ll need for my classes.”
“We are excited to bring this innovative research space to UCF engineering students,” says Ed De Varona, FPL’s vice president of transmission & substation. “The lab is a terrific training ground for rising engineers to work directly with the latest technologies and help refine and innovate the way energy is transmitted and distributed across the grid now and in the future.”
Currently, more than 1,400 undergraduate and graduate students at UCF are studying electrical or computer engineering — disciplines that support energy systems and electricity grids. Another 500-plus UCF students have indicated they plan to pursue an electrical or computer engineering major once prerequisite coursework is completed.
UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science offers a power and renewable energy track as part of its undergraduate programs. In addition, a graduate certificate is offered in sustainable and resilient energy systems.
“The Microgrid Control Lab provides unprecedented access to a modern grid control center that enables some of the brightest young minds in the country to collaborate, learn and help reimagine the energy grid of tomorrow,” says Jim Walsh, general manager of GE Digital’s Grid Software business. “As renewable energy sources, like solar, continue to expand and evolve, the technology behind the grid has to keep up. It is critical that electrical and computer engineering talent have real-life experiences with the hardware and software that underpins the modern grid helping utilities securely deliver reliable clean energy.”
GE Digital is also beginning a new internship program that invests in the development of its team and future grid engineering leaders. The program will offer UCF students an intensive experience in the utilities and power sectors and help students develop analytical and software development skills using emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning.
FPL and GE Digital together employ approximately 400 UCF alumni in their workforces.