125 years after the War of the Currents, Pitt promotes DC power again

It’s been more than 125 years since the War of the Currents — a battle between Thomas Edison’s direct current power and George Westinghouse’s alternating current power — made Pittsburgh a central city in the future of electricity.

Eventually, Mr. Westinghouse won and the nation’s modern electric grid was built using AC power. It was a more efficient means of transferring electricity and cheaper, too.

Now, a group of professors at the University of Pittsburgh are out to prove that DC power might be a better fit for a modern electric grid. And just as George Westinghouse did more than a century ago, they hope to make Pittsburgh an important part of their fight.

Gregory Reed, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and director of the school’s Electric Power Initiative, has been working with DC power for several years, trying to develop technology and create standards that can move the concept closer to widespread adoption.

Bopaya Bidanda, professor and chairman of the Swanson School’s department of industrial engineering, and John Camillus, a professor of strategic management at Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business, are using DC power as part of their Business of Humanity Project. The project encourages companies to make decisions that benefit society while also growing business.

The trio recently received an $800,000 grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based foundation that aims to promote the quality of life in Western Pennsylvania, to further their study of DC power. Though their work is different — Mr. Reed focuses on further developing the technology while Mr. Bidanda and Mr. Camillus focus on its implementation — all three will make Pittsburgh a focal point in their efforts.

“I feel really privileged that we’re here in Pittsburgh where the start of this industry really happened,” Mr. Reed said. “Now we’re sort of fighting it again here in the 21st century, although I don’t see it as much of a war this time. I see it as more of an evolution of sorts.”

It was Mr. Edison who first powered the world’s original electric system in 1883. Mr. Westinghouse was intrigued by the concept and started investing in the industry. He soon realized, using patents he purchased from Nikola Tesla, that DC power was not an effective means to deliver bulk power because it required high currents.

Instead he promoted AC power, which can alternate voltage between long-distance transmission and local delivery. Mr. Westinghouse won, and his patents were the basis for the modern electric grid.

But in the past 40 years, DC power has emerged as an intriguing option for several reasons.

One is the development of power conversion technology, which converts AC power and DC power. Laptop computers, for instance, use converters — that big brick in your briefcase — to transfer AC power to DC power. About 11 percent to 15 percent of energy is wasted in the conversion, Mr. Camillus said.

Additionally, other research developments have made DC power more efficient to transmit over large areas than AC power, Mr. Reed said. Factor in an aging electrical infrastructure, and it might be time to convert. Modern electrical systems being constructed in Europe, China and India are built using high-voltage DC power.

“Even when it comes to transmission, which is the original reason AC was deployed, DC is superior,” Mr. Camillus said.

Green energy is a big driver in DC power development, since all solar panels and some hydro-electric plants generate DC power.

Mr. Camillus and Mr. Bidanda plan to start using DC power in Homewood to prove the system is feasible for people of modest means.

Initially, they plan to build a greenhouse that uses DC power electricity generated from local solar panels. Within the next year, they plan to power three row houses with DC power. Eventually, they would like to use it to supply a community center, a church and even a small college campus in Homewood, creating a DC microgrid.

Their Business of Humanity Project played host to a conference in Prague last October devoted to the “promise” of DC power in low-income areas. Among the conference’s attendees: Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

Mr. Reed wants to take a lot of his developments and apply them in a commercial or industrial setting. His research has been focused on developing DC power technology that works throughout the entire chain of electricity distribution. The next step is to work with a corporate or community partner in the Pittsburgh area and test the technology in a real world scenario.

He started working in tandem with Mr. Camillus and Mr. Bidanda, when common corporate partners suggested they see if there was an opportunity to collaborate. The Hillman grant is another link in that partnership.

“We want to make Western Pennsylvania the home of DC power,” Mr. Bidanda said. “This is our home.

”With Greg’s project, with our project, we think that in 30 or 40 years could make DC power the power mode of choice. Pennsylvania is at the beginning of this curve.”

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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