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New center brings U-EPIC research power to the energy transition

November 21, 2022 by Judi Pickell
Policy/Legislative

In a world in transition away from fossil fuels, the need for reliable and affordable renewable energy is clear. But there’s so much more that goes into the energy transition than just the technology needed to provide clean energy. How will students prepare for a workforce and industry that’s still coming into focus? How can the clean energy enterprise equitably support economic development and prosperity among all members of the community?

To address those questions, the University of Utah has launched the new Utah Energy & Power Innovation Center (U-EPIC), an interdisciplinary research center. With a team that includes engineers, social scientists, climate scientists and computer scientists, U-EPIC’s mission is to “innovate the future of equitable, sustainable and resilient power and energy infrastructure.”

Learn more about the center here.

Solving the serious challenges of our time

Ensuring clean, equitable and affordable energy is one of the biggest challenges of our time, says Masood Parvania, associate professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering and director of U-EPIC.

“We are given an unprecedented once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the transition of energy industry to utilize clean, sustainable, and distributed sources of energy, while ensuring that the benefits of this transition, including air quality, economic development, employment opportunity, and access to clean energy are equitably distributed within the society,” he says. “Nobody and no community should be left behind in this transition.”

Achieving these goals requires interdisciplinary research, such as improving the resilience of energy infrastructure in the face of more frequent wildfires and hurricanes. U-EPIC researchers focus on four research topics:

Learn more about U-EPIC research programs here.

Benefitting student workforce preparation

Through a collaboration between U-EPIC and the Energy and Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah, students will be able to earn a Resilient Energy Certificate designed to “address the local workforce requirements of the changing energy landscape, meeting the increasing demand for specialized energy workers.”

To train students, “U-EPIC provides resources and facilities such as the Cyber-Physical System Resilience Testbed, which simulates the operation of a power system in real time and facilitates training on grid control strategies, simulation of system failure and cyber-attack scenarios, and research on artificial intelligence and machine learning-based algorithms for managing the grid,” says Jairo Giraldo, associate director for education and facilities of U-EPIC.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are core values of U-EPIC, whose workforce development program focuses on training opportunities for disadvantaged, rural and remote communities.

“We hope that our multidisciplinary center will become a place where students, faculty, and researchers can learn about energy, infrastructure, and innovation issues,” says Tabitha Benney, U-EPIC’s associate director for Infrastructure Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, “but also where they can learn about how to incorporate EDI into their research or to learn about translational, convergent, or community engaged research designs. We want to encourage anyone interested in these topics to consider reaching out to join our community.  There are a ton of existing resources in this area on our campus.  We want to connect others to these resources, but we can also offer input on grants and research, as well as mentoring, training, and other programming.”

The Energy Workforce Training Partnership works with stakeholders in industry and across the university to design student experiences that will shape the next generation of the energy workforce, including student projects, seminars and career expos.

“Through community engagement and involvement of local stakeholders in curriculum development, we ensure that students can have a meaningful contribution in the energy workforce ecosystem,” says Alba González, Workforce Development Manager of U-EPIC.

Learn more about U-EPIC’s workforce development initiatives here.

Impacting Utah communities

U-EPIC’s training programs benefit the energy workforce, but more specifically benefit the local energy workforce, reducing competition for energy workers and upskilling current employees to protect against job loss in the energy transition. These programs, Parvania says, are developed in cooperation with local energy, climate and resilience stakeholders.

“We engage with industry, government agencies and community stakeholders to understand and address their energy needs,” says Divya Chandrasekhar, U-EPIC’s associate director of Social Science and Community Engagement. “Then, we collaborate and develop research solutions while building trust and creating lasting relationships. The result is energy resilient communities that have access to clean, equitable and affordable energy.”

As an example, U-EPIC is involved in a planning study to lay the groundwork for future artificial intelligence-based virtual disaster training tools. Funded through the National Science Foundation Smart & Connected Communities Program, the study will not only integrate scientific knowledge on disaster responses from multiple scientific disciplines, but will specifically engage social sciences to correct for any bias or inequity that arises with regard to socioeconomically vulnerable communities. The study is a collaboration between U-EPIC and local nonprofit planning organization Envision Utah.

Learn more about U-EPIC’s stakeholder engagement model here.

Advancing the U’s leadership in energy technology

U-EPIC faculty hold international recognition for research on infrastructure resilience, cyber security of infrastructure and energy justice and equity. The U-EPIC leadership team includes:

PHOTO CREDIT: U-EPIC

Part of the U-EPIC leadership team at the center’s launch event on Oct 4, 2022. L to R: Chandrasekhar, Benney, Parvania, Giraldo, González, and Zhang.

  • Masood Parvania, director of U-EPIC, who is also a Presidential Scholar Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
  • Tabitha Benney, associate director for Infrastructure Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Benney is also an associate professor in the Department of Political Science.
  • Divya Chandrasekhar, associate director for Social Science Research and Stakeholder Engagement. Chandrasekhar is also an associate professor in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning.
  • Jairo Giraldo, associate director for Education and Facilities. Giraldo is also a research assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
  • Alba González Hernando, Workforce Development Manager.
  • John Horel, research lead of Climate and Atmospheric Science. Horel is also the chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences.
  • Mu Zhang, research lead of Cyber Security of Critical Infrastructure. Zhang is also an assistant professor in the School of Computing.
  • Carlos Oroza, research lead of Interdependent Critical Infrastructure. Oroza is also an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

“U-EPIC will enable collaboration between interdisciplinary sets of faculties,” Parvania says, “and provide further visibility to the cutting-edge power and energy research occurring at the U.”

U-EPIC at the University of Utah invites all universities, industry, government agencies and communities to join the dialogue to “innovate the future of equitable, sustainable and resilient power and energy infrastructure.”

Learn more about U-EPIC values here.

U-EPIC – WITH UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS | IMAGE CREDIT: BRETT SAYLES/PEXELS

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