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WVU, Pittsburgh Universities Team Up to Modernize Energy Grid

West Virginia University, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are spearheading the "Engines" initiative to diversify energy sources and carriers, carbon sequestration and storage.

A sign for West Virginia University sits on a lawn in front of a building.
(TNS) — West Virginia University will lead a $1 million collaborative effort to create an innovation ecosystem in the region.

The school is partnering with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University on a project funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Together, they're going to take the expertise that exists around energy in the West Virginia-southwestern Pennsylvania region and help catalyze a larger energy revolution.

"Our grid system is antiquated," Erienne Olesh, executive director of the WVU Office of Student and Faculty Innovation, said. "It needs some help to get caught up, especially as we start moving forward in the energy transition. So we're looking at technologies that can help increase the security of the grid infrastructure itself from things like adverse weather events, events, or bad actors."

Olesh is spearheading the initiative. Engines, as the project is being called, intends to look at new ways to diversify energy sources and carriers, carbon sequestration and storage, and other ways to bolster and support the energy transition. The NSF put the program together less than two years ago. After hearing the announcement, Olesh reached out to internal and external colleagues to jump on the opportunity. She said that due to the geographical proximity of the three universities as well as the region's history as an energy production area positioned them to submit an application around energy diversification and grid resilience.

Their hard work paid off. After working about a year on the application and waiting for the NSF to review the submission, the team received word they won their grant on Jan. 30.

For the next 18 months, all three universities will be figuring out how to narrow their research focus to a better defined path. Stage one of the grant call for creating an innovation hub like those found in Boston or San Francisco, albeit focused on energy. Once the three universities have come up with a specific vision to pursue, they will compete for a $160 million grant to bring that vision to life.

"As a land grant university, we have an obligation to make sure that we raise the level for everybody in West Virginia," Sheena Murphy, associate vice president for research development at the WVU Research Office, said. "This is a really critical need, where we can take the intellectual property from the university and turn it into some kind of economic impact that is of value to the community we serve."

Mike Holland, vice chancellor for Science Policy and Research Strategies at the University of Pittsburgh, said no one single university has the requisite experience to tackle societal problems that exist at the scale climate change does. It requires a large team effort.

One of the novel things about the NSF's Regional Innovation Engines program is that it encourages universities to tackle big, challenging problems while also giving them the discretion it takes to figure out where the focus needs to be.

Holland's colleague at the University of Pittsburgh, Robert Cunningham, added that tackling a large problem requires three things — expertise, scale and speed. Cunningham is vice chancellor for Research Infrastructure. Reiterating that no single university can do it all, Cunningham said universities need to work with others in order to amass the expertise necessary to tackle a challenge.

Scale is also necessary to work through a major challenge such as building an innovation engine, and ensuring there's a critical mass of workers available in a short period of time to do the work. Finally, rapid development of new inventions coupled with new products and workers who know how to use them also requires partnerships.

"Pulling all that together can only be done when you've got the scale of multiple universities," Cunningham said.

Valerie Karplus, principal investigator at Carnegie Mellon University and professor of engineering and public policy, said the project is designed to bring together the best and brightest in academia. Karplus is also the associate director of the Scott Institute for Energy Innovation.

Karplus said each university brings its own strengths to the table for this project.

Carnegie Mellon brings expertise in computer science, AI, energy systems and decarbonizing technology, which are similar to WVU's strengths. The University of Pittsburgh brings knowledge on energy grids and subsurface geology and geothermal energy. Rather than cornering any particular topic, all three schools complement each other in terms of what they bring to the project.

"I think one of the most exciting prospects is thinking, how we can really pull together all the necessary pieces to make the energy and innovation ecosystem work here in the region, in a more coordinated and not only more productive, but help manage the low carbon transition in a way that creates opportunity for the entire region and grows that opportunity," Karplus said. "The potential is massive."

Although the project is in its infancy, Olesh sees it as a way to ultimately benefit everyday regular residents who live here. The NSF grant required Olesh to consider four components, of which research and technology are only two. A third component was to consider how to create a startup ecosystem that will benefit the area they are working in. The fourth component was workforce. Olesh said her team has to consider how to bring the existing workforce into a new type of field. They also have to look at how existing regulations and policy impact the energy space in general.

The three universities have 18 months to consider those questions and more. The next phase has $160 million riding on it, as well as the potential to transform the region into a "Silicon Valley for energy."

"So it's a very unique project in the sense that we are really being asked to look at this from a holistic point of view, which is daunting, but it's very exciting," Olesh said. "I think we've got a phenomenal set of partners across the three universities that will help make this very successful."

©2024 the Times West Virginian (Fairmont, W. Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.