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Student Spotlight: Dan Conner - "Searching for Sustainable Solutions for Utilizing Wind Energy"

Dan Connor
Dan Conner working in lab.

The sun is a source of infinite energy. Atmospheric convection and wind currents are driven perpetually as sunlight warms the earth - the challenge is harnessing as much wind power as possible and integrating that power seamlessly into existing distribution systems. As a renewable source of energy, wind has yet to be fully utilized. Unlike solar energy captured using panels during the day, the wind generally blows at night when electricity demand is already low. What can be done in the mean-time to expand the use of the technology we have now?

That is exactly the question that Dan Conner, a senior with a dual major in energy engineering and energy, business and finance, hopes to answer. Conner wants to meet engineering challenges in ways that are both environmentally sustainable and economically viable.

As part of a senior research-focused, capstone course – Energy and Geo-Environmental Engineering (EGEE) 494 – Conner investigated the feasibility of powering residential electric hot water heaters using wind farms in ways that are mutually beneficial for energy producers and their customers.

The capstone course, taught by Sharon Miller, assistant professor in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ (EMS) John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering and the director of the Office of Student Development at the EMS Energy Institute, pairs students with faculty advisors to conduct research in areas of interest to the students. Conner’s faculty advisor was PSIEE co-hire Seth Blumsack, assistant professor of energy policy and economics, an expert in electricity distribution networks.

“Wind intermittency is a major part of what keeps widespread implementation from happening,” Conner said. “If a company wants to start up a wind farm, they can’t guarantee that their customers’ needs will be met at all times of the day.”

Electricity as a commodity becomes easier to sell with reduced intermittency, which is where hot water heaters come in. Electricity from the wind farm is used to heat the water but the hot water does not have to be used at the same time it is produced.

“Water heaters are a valuable place to start looking to reduce wind power intermittency because they are the only household appliance that can, in a sense, double as an energy storage device,” Conner said. “They can increase the benefit of energy production of an intermittent energy source like wind power.” Plus, controllable hot water heaters have been used for decades by electric utilities to reduce electricity demand when the grid is most strained.

EMS graduate student Farid Tayari, Energy and Mineral Engineering – Energy Management and Policy Option, is also advised by Blumsack. Tayari helped relay wind farm energy production figures from the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland Interconnection power pool (PJM) and provided Conner with the foundation of a thermodynamic model of a hot water heater that he developed. Conner combined this data with residential hot water usage statistics from the 2011 American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) handbook. Conner recognized that this information could be made into something of compounded usefulness. “All of the data already existed, it was just a matter of putting the pieces together,” explained Conner.

Comparing water heater power demand with the electricity output from a typically-sized wind turbine, Conner found that the electricity produced could serve the hot water needs of smaller communities. In small sample sets of 100 to 200 hot water heaters, there were no points at which demand for energy was not being met by wind farm energy production and the intermittency of remaining wind power was reduced. Alternative control strategies and shifts in demand would be necessary to satisfy water heater power usage for communities with tens of thousands of water heaters while reducing intermittency of wind power delivered to the grid, said Conner.

Moving forward, Conner explained refinements to his research would include gathering location-specific data for annual hot water heater energy consumption and adding an economic model for cost-benefit analysis. This research provides a base for further dissection of the challenge of wind energy intermittency and inquiry into the improvement and implementation of consumer-end hot water heater control strategies. He hopes that this method of analyzing energy production and consumption profiles will clarify the baseline interaction of power consumption and production profiles, increase reliability and provide a framework: “If I had more time, I would refine the calculation and model-combination process to be more user-friendly and applicable to multiple energy sources.”

Conner found the chance to apply concepts from what he learned in his classes to his research both exciting and rewarding. He said he has new perspective on independent research: “It gives me a lot more respect for the people who pioneered the everyday items that we take for granted. You always have help, and you always build on the discoveries of others.”

Conner is currently a member of the Penn State Student Sustainability Advisory Council. You can view his profile online at: http://studentaffairsblogs.psu.edu/sustainability-council/2012/11/profile-dan-conner.html.

Conner was a member of the inaugural class of the Presidential Leadership Academy. Read his testimonial online at: http://academy.psu.edu/alumni/testimonials/index.cfm.

By Geoff Rushlau,
PSIEE Writing Intern

Contact

Dan Conner
dwc171@psu.edu

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