The University of Vermont has been named one of only 18 colleges and universities in the country to receive a highly coveted Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training, or IGERT, grant from the National Science Foundation, the first awarded in the state of Vermont. The UVM proposal was chosen from among 154 IGERT proposals submitted to the NSF in 2012.
UVM will receive approximately $3 million over five years to create an innovative, multi-disciplinary graduate program supporting 22 doctoral students who will be trained to analyze and develop smart grid systems. UVM will also hire two faculty members as part of the grant.
A smart grid is an intelligent, digitally enabled electric grid that gathers, distributes and acts on information about the behavior of consumers and suppliers in order to improve the efficiency, reliability, cost and sustainability of electricity services. A smart grid can also better serve new technologies, such as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and more effectively assimilate renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, that is not produced at a uniform, predictable rate.
UVM’s new graduate program will create a generation of multidisciplinary scientists who are capable of analyzing the entire smart grid system – integrating technology, human behavior and public policy – to understand the complex dynamics of the next generation of electric power systems. The ultimate goal of the program is to develop the scientific/engineering research workforce necessary to allow intelligent deployment of smart grids that provide efficient power delivery in keeping with society’s needs.
The growth of smart grids has been hampered in part by a workforce unable to fully exploit the integrated nature of the intelligent digital technology, a deficiency the new program will directly address, according to Domenico Grasso, vice president for Research and dean of the Graduate College at UVM.
“In the past we might have viewed technical issues like energy loading and consumer concerns like variable pricing as separate,” Grasso said. “Now we know all these factors touch one another and have to be viewed holistically to devise solutions that can move us forward.”
TRI critical to success
Though UVM has tried for IGERT funding in the past, Grasso believes the renewed institutional commitment to investments in innovative and strategic research played a significant role in the success of this grant. Specifically, UVM’s Transdisciplinary Research Initiative, or TRI, specifically the Complex Systems and Neuroscience, Behavior and Health spires, were critical components in the winning bid, according to Grasso. “Both Complex Systems and NBH were instrumental in our obtaining the grant and will be at the heart of the new curriculum,” he said. The first students will enroll beginning in the fall of 2012.
In addition to the spires, two other factors were important in UVM’s successful application for the IGERT, said Jeffrey Marshall, a professor in the School of Engineering in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, who spearheaded the grant: the Vermont Advanced Computer Center at UVM, which will provide the computational power the initiative will need, and UVM’s ongoing partnership with Sandia National Laboratories, one of whose areas of focus is the development and deployment of smart grid technology.
“Multi-disciplinary research and education of the sort sponsored by the IGERT program are an ideal fit with the smaller, more connected structure of UVM, where faculty from all different parts of the university generally know each other and work closely together,” said Marshall.
Marshall also credited Vermont senator Bernie Sanders for helping position the university to win the grant. Sanders has played a critical role in a variety of smart grid initiatives, including facilitating and helping fund the Sandia partnership with the university and the state, and securing funds to establish the Center for Energy Transformation and Innovation housed at UVM.
Advancing Vermont’s leadership in smart grid
The grant will significantly advance the state of Vermont’s leadership position in smart grid technology and UVM’s role in helping propel that advance, Marshall said. In 2009 the state received a $69 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, matched by the state’s electric utilities, for a total of $168 million, to install the country’s first statewide smart-metering system.
The IGERT grant is complementary to the DOE grant, producing a professionally trained workforce able to make strategic use of the data gathered from the smart meters. Marshall expects that a significant number of graduates will stay in Vermont. The program is also open to working professionals in the state, who will be able to take courses. Professionals will also teach in the program.
Other UVM faculty who are co-investigators on the IGERT grant with Marshall include Margaret Eppstein in Computer Science, Stephen Higgins in Psychiatry, Paul Hines in Engineering, and Chris Koliba in Community Development and Applied Economics. Diann Gaalema in Psychiatry, Cynthia Forehand in the Graduate College and Grasso were also important contributors in the development of the project. Faculty participating on the project come from many university departments in addition to those above, including Computer Science, Mathematics, Economics, and Psychology as well as researchers and staff from Sandia, the Vermont Law School, Champlain College, and the ECHO Center.
The grant will also help support UVM’s strategic initiative to increase diversity in its graduate programs.
Launched in 1997, the IGERT is the National Science Foundation’s flagship interdisciplinary training program, educating U.S. Ph.D. scientists and engineers by building on the foundations of their disciplinary knowledge with interdisciplinary training. The IGERT program spans science, technology, engineering, mathematics and social sciences.