TCAT partners with T-STEM academies, high schools to develop power micro-grid

September 9, 2013

The number of citizens of the State of Texas who live in Colonias along the Texas-Mexico border continues to grow on a daily basis. Currently almost a half-million people call an estimated 2,000 Colonias home.

Among the major concerns facing these inhabitants is the lack of water, wastewater, or electrical service due to unscrupulous developers.

To help with this problem the Texas Center for Applied Technology (TCAT), a center within the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), is partnering with T-STEM academies and other high schools to develop a local power micro-grid for use in the underserved communities along the Texas-Mexico border.

Six schools have taken part in the program, two from San Antonio, two from Austin, and one each from Pleasanton and Waco.

The capstone-engineering project, which is funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE), provides experiences for the students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education.

The project integrates educational concepts in engineering design and analysis, problem solving, engineering project management and social responsibility to create a design that can provide electrical service to a group of homes not currently served by the electrical grid.

"Students are provided a problem statement based on a real world application for their completed device or system," said Michael Martin, interim director of energy and environmental sustainability for TCAT and the lead PI of the program. "The student engineering teams design and build a working prototype and then scale up that solution to meet the goals outlined in the problem statement. "

Under the program students will be partnered with a trained engineering mentor to provide guidance and advice as they design their system to meet community needs. The students will implement a small generation system in the laboratory and carry out experiments to validate their design.

To help them with their design, students are provided with solar panels, solar change controllers, generators, inverters, transfer switches, a laptop with LabVIEW®, computer interface devices and batteries.

"We had already deployed micro-grids into the Colonias, but we wanted to challenge these students to see how they would approach the problem," said Martin. "They did all the research, learning about renewable energy, energy storage and conversion, and basic mechanical and electrical engineering principles."

In 2010 TEES researchers received a $200,000 grant from the Texas State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) to deploy micro-grid systems in areas along the border that did not have electrical utilities.

The current STEM project is a follow-on project consisting of two parts -designing and building a micro-grid trailer for training education and demonstration and then engaging high schools throughout Texas, getting them to design and build a power device (micro-grid) based on the problem statement of delivering power to residents of the Colonias.

The STEM program is available to school districts with an on-going STEM program and can be either class-based or extracurricular. The goal is to connect secondary school students to technical careers in the renewable energy field.

"I have been amazed at the young talent we have in our schools," said Martin. "In talking to and working with the students I have observed their creativity first hand. We hope that programs like this serve to enlighten the students about engineering and science in practice and propel them into future opportunities in higher education and the workplace."


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