Energy innovation in action

At 10, the Great Lakes Energy Institute is hitting its stride

By Robert L. Smith

Landmarks are often research instruments at Case Western Reserve University. Near the south edge of campus, a towering wind turbine—which a student might point you toward to find the Veale Athletic Center--twirled like a giant pinwheel on a gusty winter day, feeding power to that athletic center as it tested wind technology.

North of campus, behind the Maltz Performing Arts Center, a research-grade sun farm absorbed what rays filtered down from a pale gray sky, producing electricity while allowing researchers to test the performance of solar cells.

Between these highly visible structures, futuristic batteries hummed in building basements and testing chambers glowed with the heat of simulated suns.

The Great Lakes Energy Institute, a university-wide research institute housed in the Case School of Engineering, is responsible for much of this living laboratory. It orchestrates collaboration between faculty, students and industry partners to explore new energy systems. Through its efforts, research teams are working to harness the wind, design better batteries, modernize the electric grid--and advance the region into a new energy age.

The drive toward advanced energy began 10 years ago, when the Cleveland Foundation helped to launch the Great Lakes Energy Institute with a $3.6 million grant. That was quickly followed by a $2 million grant from the Maltz Family Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. Foundation leaders sought to leverage CWRU expertise to create energy industry jobs in Northeast Ohio. The School of Engineering, meanwhile, saw a chance to attract research dollars and apply faculty skills to real-world challenges.

“I looked at a city and a region that was born in energy under Rockefeller and that still had enormous energy expertise,” said Dianne Anderson, who came from British Petroleum to become the institute’s first director in October 2008. Thanks to the startup grants, she said, “We were real very quickly.”

As they mark a 10th anniversary, she and other founders are apprising a research institute that may be just hitting its stride. By tapping talent from a range of schools and departments, GLEI is able to build uncommon research teams with breadth across disciplines. It has attracted about $100 million in research dollars--from industry, government and private sources—and now averages more than $12 million in research and educational funding a year.

Alexis Abramson, PhD, the institute’s current co-director, said her goal is to build on that momentum.

“GLEI’s primary focus is attracting funding so that our faculty and students can do breakthrough work,” said Abramson, the Milton and Tamar Maltz Professor of Energy Innovation. “The ultimate goal is really to have an impact on the world.”

Federal support might be harder to come by in the years ahead, as the Trump administration shows limited enthusiasm for new energy sources. But Abramson and others think the institute has wrested the attention of industry and positioned CWRU as a player in a growing field.

“It has established CWRU as an important place in basic energy research,” said Walter “Walt” Culver, MS ’62, PhD ’64, an energy industry veteran and a charter member of GLEI’s advisory board. “It’s opened up whole new fields of interest, not just for the university but for all of Northeast Ohio.”

Siemens recently announced plans to partner with the School of Engineering to train engineers to run the smart grids of the future. Siemens, a global manufacturer and technology powerhouse, has long partnered with CWRU on medical imaging research. The new commitment marks its first partnership with the university on energy research.  

The jobs envisioned in 2008 have yet to appear, but Ronn Richard, the president of the Cleveland Foundation, thinks those might not be far away—especially if the state legislature becomes friendlier to renewable energy.

“We need good public policy at the state level—coupled with good research at our universities—that will lead to jobs in the private sector,” he said. “We’re getting close. I think Case has done a marvelous job.”

Among the many projects being coordinated by the institute, two readily illustrate the power of GLEI to create new energy systems--and maybe launch new industries in the Great Lakes region.

From the lab, a plan to break the ice

There’s a good reason designers of America’s first freshwater wind farm call their project Icebreaker Wind. To raise a pilot wind farm off the coast of Cleveland—and jumpstart a wind-energy industry on the Great Lakes--they need turbines that can withstand the ice and fury of a Lake Erie winter.

For that, they turned to the Case School of Engineering and the talent that could be tapped by the Great Lakes Energy Institute. Deep in the basement of the Bingham Building on Case Quad, Xiangwu “David” Zeng, PhD, and his research team are testing foundation designs for turbines that can stand tall on a frozen lake.

To mimic the power of shifting ice, they place small prototypes of turbine parts into an industrial-sized centrifuge and hit the switch, slamming them with extreme forces of gravity.

“This is applied research,” said Zeng, the chair of the Department of Civil Engineering. “We’re the research arm, basically, for the foundation design of this project.”

It needed one. Icebreaker Wind calls for six nearly 500-foot-tall turbines to rise in about 30-feet of water in a high-wind zone 8 to 10 miles off the coast of Cleveland. An underwater cable will connect them to a shoreline substation and the regional high-voltage power grid.

The idea is not only to generate power but to show that windmills can work on the Great Lakes. Once the region adopts wind energy, the thinking goes, much of the design and manufacturing work will stay local, creating thousands of jobs.

“We know how to bend metal,” said Ronn Richard, the president of the Cleveland Foundation, which helped to launch the project a decade ago.

That metal needs to be bent in a certain way, and designed with new capabilities.

“Case has been involved since the beginning,” said Lorry Wagner, PhD, an energy engineer and the president of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., or LEEDCo., which is leading the project. “They’ve all been good to work with. And for David, this is right up his alley. He’s done turbine analysis for Asian companies. His work is a significant part of this project.”

Zeng, whose research is being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, has studied turbines designed for northern Europe, including those in the North Sea. But the comparisons are not exact.

“This will be the first one in freshwater—with ice. Even the Europeans have very little experience with this,” he said. “It’s not just ice. Our ice moves, up and down.”

Zeng and his team, which includes research associate Xeufei “Sophie” Wang, have designed an “ice cone,” or a conical shield at the water level, that ideally will ward off or break apart encroaching ice. Such a “facemask” has been used before on bridge piers, Zeng said, but not on windmills. So far, it’s working in the lab.

“We’re making progress,” he said.

He said he hopes to soon have a design ready for LEEDCo. Turbines are scheduled to rise in the lake in summer of 2020.  And that’s just the start. Wagner, Richard and others envision hundreds of windmills powering a new Great Lakes energy industry.

Success, they know, hinges on an engineering team solving a problem no one has confronted before.

 New energy needs a smarter grid

This spring, an array of solar panels will appear on the roof of the Mandel School for Applied Social Sciences, making the North Campus complex another demonstration site in the growing web of the Great Lakes Energy Institute.

As students study social sciences in a building partially powered by sunlight, researchers—who also plan to park a battery in the parking garage--will be testing strategies for storing and streaming solar energy. It’s a step toward energy integration and the ultimate aim--redesigning the national electric grid.

For most of us, it’s enough to know that if we flip a switch the lights go on. Engineers know that the electricity to power those lights flows through a vast and aging grid—the network of power plants, transformers and transmission lines that delivers electricity to homes and businesses.

First designed in the 1920s, the grid is unable to efficiently stream new and diverse sources of electricity, like wind, solar and battery power. Case Western Reserve is in a position to help.

The School of Engineering has deep experience in energy transmission and distribution technology. That’s what attracted Siemen’s, which plans to invest in classes and labs that will train the next generation of power system engineers. Those engineers will run a highly technical system that can accommodate cleaner, greener energy sources.

 “The current infrastructure we have cannot support that level of integration,” said Kenneth Loparo, PhD ’77, the Nord Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and an expert on power transmission. “How do we develop the distribution system of the future? It’s not an event. This is an evolution.”

In collaboration with FirstEnergy and other corporate partners, CWRU researchers are developing and testing new distribution systems.

The Mandel project complements demonstration sites on Case Quad, where smart building controls--and a 125 kW battery from Johnson Controls--are integrating new energy systems into old engineering buildings.

There’s not enough sunlight to power a whole building on campus, but there’s enough to test a strategy. Using solar panels, a storage battery and new smart invertors from Eaton Corp., researchers plan to design a control architecture that will stream solar energy into the Mandel building’s power supply at optimal times—integrating renewable energy with power from the grid.

If it works, the concept will be applied to other campus complexes and maybe sections of the city, creating stand-alone microgrids that researchers think represent the future of energy transmission.

“This is really about research because the industry is looking for solutions,” said Marija Prica, PhD, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science. She’s the university’s lead investigator on the solar integration project, which is being funded by the SunShot Initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy.

“When we combine storage and solar energy with proper controls, it becomes affordable,” she said.

That, she’s says, could lead to the golden quality that would make green energy commonplace.

“If we’re successful, we will develop the dispatchability of renewable resources,” she said.  “That means we’ll be able to use them when we need them and how we need them. And that’s not really possible anywhere else today.”

Questions or comments on this story? Email