Power Sharing

Sustainable Engineering PhD scholar investigates ways to make electrical grids more resilient and secure

By Yasmine Iqbal

Power icon made of moss


1. The Challenge

As a Fulbright alumnus with an undergraduate degree in Petroleum Engineering, Mohamed Abaas ’19 MS, ’23 PhD spent his graduate academic career at Villanova investigating ways to reengineer the electrical power grid. In the Sustainable Engineering program, he was able to draw on a team of experts in Engineering and related disciplines to envision a way that future power grids could be designed to be more adaptive and functional.

2. The Grid

Most power grids have a centralized system with three components: electricity generators, transmission lines and distribution networks. When any part of that infrastructure is compromised by a weather event or cyberattack, major outages throughout a large service area can result.

In contrast, a microgrid is a smaller-scale, decentralized grid that can serve a smaller region. These microgrids can be linked through a network that allows them to share and trade power in times of need and surplus.

“Using a microgrid can make an area more resilient to outages,” Dr. Abaas says. Microgrids can recover faster from outages because they have their own generators, such as solar panels. They can also store surplus power and trade or sell it to other microgrids in the network. “Adding financial incentives to manage power demands can make the networked microgrid model economically feasible and advantageous,” he says.

3. The Research

Dr. Abaas’ research involved studying ways to improve the communication between microgrids by using artificial intelligence algorithms that would enable the grids to predict when a power outage might be imminent. He also investigated using blockchain technology to allow microgrids to buy and sell power across a network. He did this by building three microgrid lab simulations and measuring the impact of various scenarios. His research concluded that using AI that was trained on historical weather data was an effective way to make a networked microgrid more resilient. He also found that blockchain technology could make the process of trading energy more secure and economically viable.

Ross Lee, PhD, a professor of practice in Sustainable Engineering, who headed up Dr. Abaas’ advising committee, notes that this dissertation highlights the PhD program’s unique focus on fostering collaboration between experts from various disciplines.

“The program applies a whole systems perspective that includes social, technical, economic, environmental and political dimensions,” says Dr. Lee, who helped to design the Sustainable Engineering PhD program, which launched in 2016. “In Mohamed’s case, we called on world-class thought leaders beyond Villanova to advise on key aspects of his work.”

“The infrastructure and regulatory environment would have to change significantly for networked microgrids to become feasible, but this research helped show what may be possible,” says Dr. Abaas, who currently works as a sustainability specialist for a global manufacturing company. “The future of energy production and distribution may not have a one-size-fits-all model.”


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