UCF's new digital grid lab teaches future power needs

By Julie Gargotta, Reporter
Last Updated: Monday, March 06, 2017, 6:54 PM EST

When the power goes out at your home, it's electrical engineers who help get it back on by troubleshooting what's happening on the area's power grids.

  • UCF acquires Digital Grid Lab with help from Siemens
  • Lab simulates real-world scenarios from the area's electrical grid
  • Essential to train the next generation of electrical engineering teams

A three-quarter of a million dollar investment from Siemens will help University of Central Florida students learn how real-world utility crews operate.

“It’s something that students don’t really get a chance to be involved with," said Michael Rathbun, who studies electrical engineering. “It shows real faith that the campus has in us.”

Siemens pumped $750,000 into the digital grid lab. Students like Rathbun will have access to data coming from the area's electrical grid -- an opportunity not often afforded to students, exposing them to data that one sees in an internship or post-graduation job.

“A squirrel runs across a line and shorts something. We can see if that happens, what will be the follow-up," said the senior, who wants to design power grids for homes and commercial buildings. “It’s really neat to take the numbers, a theory that you learn in class, and see it happen before your eyes.”

Students use simulations to foreshadow what will happen. That's especially helpful in severe weather situations.

“We can know, for instance, in advance of a major hurricane storm, what damages could look like and how that would impact daily lives," said Professor Zhihua Qu. "It could be days in advance that the study could be done."

Qu, who chairs the university's Electrical and Computer Engineering department and oversees the lab, said students will get to see the bigger picture of electrical lines and transformers.

“This lab really allows the students to see the overall power grid, whether it’s a micro-grid, like UCF campus, or it could be a grid as large as the state of Florida," he said.

Students will collect and analyze data, sharing their studies with utility companies. And as Orlando moves towards a smart grid, hooking up more phones and solar panels, Rathbun said that studies in the lab can help crews in the field.

“We can give them recommendations and they can take the advice based on what we’ve simulated," said Rathbun. “They say, 'This power line is going to be down, it’s going to affect this area, this area and that area.’ So, you can be right on site when it happens."

While students are still training on how to use the digital grid lab, UCF said it will give them high-tech training they need for jobs that will soon be in high demand. Qu said as Baby Boomers retire, more positions requiring an enhanced skill set will open.

"People didn't realize that electrical utility, power companies and industry companies really need high-tech knowledge. It has been a steady business, but the whole industry is changing," he said. "What we need is not only more future workers to replace us, but people with higher level of skills."