Preparing global online learners for the clean energy transition | MIT News


After a career devoted to making the electric power system more efficient and resilient, Marija Ilic came to MIT in 2018 eager not just to extend her research in new directions, but to prepare a new generation for the challenges of the clean-energy transition.

To that end, Ilic, a senior research scientist in MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decisions Systems (LIDS) and a senior staff member at Lincoln Laboratory in the Energy Systems Group, designed an edX course that captures her methods and vision: Principles of Modeling, Simulation, and Control for Electric Energy Systems.

EdX is a provider of massive open online courses produced in partnership with MIT, Harvard University, and other leading universities. Ilic’s class made its online debut in June 2021, running for 12 weeks, and it is one of an expanding set of online courses funded by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) to provide global learners with a view of the shifting energy landscape.

Ilic first taught a version of the class while a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, rolled out a second iteration at MIT just as the pandemic struck, and then revamped the class for its current online presentation. But no matter the course location, Ilic focuses on a central theme: “With the need for decarbonization, which will mean accommodating new energy sources such as solar and wind, we must rethink how we operate power systems,” she says. “This class is about how to pose and solve the kinds of problems we will face during this transformation.”

Hot global topic

The edX class has been designed to welcome a broad mix of students. In summer 2021, more than 2,000 signed up from 109 countries, ranging from high school students to retirees. In surveys, some said they were drawn to the class by the opportunity to advance their knowledge of modeling. Many others hoped to learn about the move to decarbonize energy systems.

“The energy transition is a hot topic everywhere in the world, not just in the U.S.,” says teaching assistant Miroslav Kosanic. “In the class, there were veterans of the oil industry and others working in investment and finance jobs related to energy who wanted to understand the potential impacts of changes in energy systems, as well as students from different fields and professors seeking to update their curricula — all gathered into a community.”

Kosanic, who is currently a PhD student at MIT in electrical engineering and computer science, had taken this class remotely in the spring semester of 2021, while he was still in college in Serbia. “I knew I was interested in power systems, but this course was eye-opening for me, showing how to apply control theory and to model different components of these systems,” he says. “I finished the course and thought, this is just the beginning, and I’d like to learn a lot more.” Kosanic performed so well online that Ilic recruited him to MIT, as a LIDS researcher and edX course teaching assistant, where he grades homework assignments and moderates a lively learner community forum.

A platform for problem-solving

The course starts with fundamental concepts in electric power systems operations and management, and it steadily adds layers of complexity, posing real-world problems along the way. Ilic explains how voltage travels from point to point across transmission lines and how grid managers modulate systems to ensure that enough, but not too much, electricity flows. “To deliver power from one location to the next one, operators must constantly make adjustments to ensure that the receiving end can handle the voltage transmitted, optimizing voltage to avoid overheating the wires,” she says.

In her early lectures, Ilic notes the fundamental constraints of current grid operations, organized around a hierarchy of regional managers dealing with a handful of very large oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power plants, and occupied primarily with the steady delivery of megawatt-hours to far-flung customers. But historically, this top-down structure doesn’t do a good job of preventing loss of energy due to sub-optimal transmission conditions or due to outages related to extreme weather events.

These issues promise to grow for grid operators as distributed resources such as solar and wind enter the picture, Ilic tells students. In the United States, under new rules dictated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, utilities must begin to integrate the distributed, intermittent electricity produced by wind farms, solar complexes, and even by homes and cars, which flows at voltages much lower than electricity produced by large power plants.

Finding ways to optimize existing energy systems and to accommodate low- and zero-carbon energy sources requires powerful new modes of analysis and problem-solving. This is where Ilic’s toolbox comes in: a mathematical modeling strategy and companion software that simplifies the input and output of electrical systems, no matter how large or how small. “In the last part of the course, we take up modeling different solutions to electric service in a way that is technology-agnostic, where it only matters how much a black-box energy source produces, and the rates of production and consumption,” says Ilic.

This black-box modeling approach, which Ilic pioneered in her research, enables students to see, for instance, “what is happening with their own household consumption, and how it affects the larger system,” says Rupamathi Jaddivada PhD ’20, a co-instructor of the edX class and a postdoc in electrical engineering and computer science. “Without getting lost in details of current or voltage, or how different components work, we think about electric energy systems as dynamical components interacting with each other, at different spatial scales.” This means that with just a basic knowledge of physical laws, high school and undergraduate students can take advantage of the course “and get excited about cleaner and more reliable energy,” adds Ilic.

What Jaddivada and Ilic describe as “zoom in, zoom out” systems thinking leverages the ubiquity of digital communications and the so-called “internet of things.” Energy devices of all scales can link directly to other devices in a network instead of just to a central operations hub, allowing for real-time adjustments in voltage, for instance, vastly improving the potential for optimizing energy flows.

“In the course, we discuss how information exchange will be key to integrating new end-to-end energy resources and, because of this interactivity, how we can model better ways of controlling entire energy networks,” says Ilic. “It’s a big lesson of the course to show the value of information and software in enabling us to decarbonize the system and build resilience, rather than just building hardware.”

By the end of the course, students are invited to pursue independent research projects. Some might model the impact of a new energy source on a local grid or investigate different options for reducing energy loss in transmission lines.

“It would be nice if they see that we don’t have to rely on hardware or large-scale solutions to bring about improved electric service and a clean and resilient grid, but instead on information technologies such as smart components exchanging data in real time, or microgrids in neighborhoods that sustain themselves even when they lose power,” says Ilic. “I hope students walk away convinced that it does make sense to rethink how we operate our basic power systems and that with systematic, physics-based modeling and IT methods we can enable better, more flexible operation in the future.”

This article appears in the Autumn 2021 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative

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