BU Researchers Say AI Might Boost Solar Connection To Power Grid

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Updated: 1/25/21 – 2:55 P.M. 

TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY (WSKG) – By 2030, New York State wants 70 percent of its electricity needs supplied by renewable energy sources.  However, that can only happen if much more renewable energy is accessible when it’s needed, such as night time.

A team of researchers at Binghamton University have won a federal grant to work the problem using solar energy. Binghamton Professor John Zhang said it will be important to find ways for solar farms to be able to store and control how much energy they release to the grid.

One method might involve the use of artificial intelligence.  It could solve compatibility problems between different inverters, firmware and software.  AI should be able to predict and respond to the needs of the grid when most of the energy is coming from renewable sources like solar.

“Those renewable energy sources, that’s either solar farm or wind farm or even a storage system that’s not generation but that can push power into the grid so they have to take responsibilities like the generator did,” Zhang said.

Robotic washers on solar panels, UC Davis. (Photo: flickr.com/UC Davis, College of Engineering and Sustainability)

Zhang said to understand the problem it helps to remember a lesson about circuits many people learned in middle school.

“When you have a circuit and you put a light bulb in, it lights up. If you put two lightbulbs in, it will become darker [the bulbs output dims]. When you put more load on the circuit they share the energy from the power supply or battery,” Zhang explained.

In the existing power system, he says that doesn’t happen.

“If some imbalance happens, generators will step in to always make sure we have enough generation to meet the demand,” he said.

The way solar energy systems communicate and distribute energy right now isn’t completely compatible with the existing grid system. This is the technical problem Zhang and his colleagues are trying to solve.

“So there’s lot of question marks — under different conditions how they are going to behave and can we start to think about how they are supposed to behave,” Zhang said.

In European countries, Zhang says they emphasize reduced energy consumption and renewable sources. He hopes as New York moves toward it’s 2030 goals, its people will do the same thing.*

* An earlier broadcast version of this story incorrectly described what inverters do. Inverters take DC output from solar cells and convert it to AC so it can go into the power grid. Inverters do not convert solar energy into electrical energy.