Earlier this month, The National Science Foundation (NSF) and United States Department of Energy (DOE) announced a five-year endowment to UT with an $18 million award to build an engineering research center.
UT was selected in this extensive process because of the talented group of researchers at UT and partner universities, strong industry support and announced national importance of modernizing the power transmission system. More than 100 institutions submitted pre-proposals, which were eventually narrowed down to 40 proposals and then to 11 site visits. Finally, the NSF and DOE selected four schools to collaborate on the center: UT as the lead institution, along with Northeastern University, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Tuskegee University.
Called the Center for Ultra-wide-area Resilient Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT), the grid is billed as a revolutionary step in how the nation allocates its energy efficiently. The center’s website, curent.utk.edu, lists the vision for CURENT as a “nation-wide or continent-wide transmission grid that is fully monitored and dynamically controlled in real-time for high efficiency, high reliability, low cost, better accommodation of renewable energy sources, full utilization of energy storage, and accommodation of responsive load.”
“Technically speaking, a smart grid allows much greater flexibility in power system operations, improved efficiency, simpler integration of renewable resources, new load controls and increased reliability,” Dr. Kevin Tomsovic, electrical engineering and computer science department head, said.
“What this means is there will be lots of new, exciting, breakthrough research, ‘pioneering work,’ taking place in the electric power and energy area at UT.” Fred Wang, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, said. “There are opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate research opportunities. In addition, many more industries will be interacting with us, creating more opportunities for students.”
Leon Tolbert, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, said, “Several states have standards of percent energy renewal, but no one has looked at how we control the grid.”
 “Education is a key component of the center and we will have a host of outreach activities, research experiences for undergraduate students as well as a large team of graduate student researchers,” Tomsovic said. “Students will have the opportunity to both learn about this field and contribute to the state-of-the-art. Less directly, but perhaps more importantly for our students, this adds greatly to the reputation of UT. CURENT establishes UT as a leader in power system engineering and showcases UT as a rising star among engineering colleges.”
“This will bring a lot of visibility to our program,” Tolbert said. “CURENT will bring higher caliber graduate students as well as more industries looking to hire our graduate and undergraduate students. Additionally, our students working with CURENT will be very active. We hope to have high school students and teachers come to our center and have our students go to middle schools and high schools to talk about electrical engineering.”
 The NSF-DOE award and upcoming five-year development of the CURENT smart grid are steps in the university’s process in becoming a top 25 public institution. Combined with the newly constructed Min Kao Building, CURENT is expected to draw some of the most outstanding undergraduate and graduate electrical engineering students in the country to Knoxville, give UT students some unique opportunities and help shape the future of the way the United States allocates and monitors energy.