How college students help energy companies solve real-world issues How college students help energy companies solve real-world issues

How college students help energy companies solve real-world issues

Duke Energy helps build the next generation of brainpower through CAPER program at three Carolinas universities


Emissaries from the future are already at work in the present, matching their wits against some of the most vexing energy challenges of our times.

They are engineering students in the Carolinas. Their job? Outfox cybercriminals intent on attacking the grid, develop the next generation of voltage regulators, devise algorithms to forecast demand and solar generation.  

Duke Energy and other industry partners assigned these projects through a program called CAPER, Center for Advanced Power Engineering Research.

At the Duke Energy Smart Grid Laboratory at University of North Carolina Charlotte: Sumit Srivastava, from left, Professor Badrul Chowdhury and Wendelin Karg.

“Students work on real-world problems, with real system data, with real-world tools to be real-world ready,” said Steve Whisenant of Duke Energy, chair of the program’s steering committee and an architect of the collaboration. “And they get to see the obstacles that industry really faces.”

Despite its playful acronym, CAPER is serious business. Its aim is to develop grid technologies while boosting the educational experience for undergraduates in electric power engineering.

“We’re developing the workforce,” Whisenant said, “while they’re still students.” America’s power grid must constantly evolve, he said, and the industry needs young minds to bring innovative solutions.

CAPER was born in 2013. It draws on the talent of students and educators at Clemson University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

A graduation requirement for electrical engineering at each school involves students completing a capstone senior design project. Before CAPER, students generally worked on hypothetical academic challenges posed by faculty.

Students, he said, love the idea of finding solutions with practical applications.

CAPER leaders Steve Whisenant of Duke Energy and Badrul Chowdhury of the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

Utility engineers propose ideas to the universities and CAPER students are assigned in teams for research. They are mentored by faculty and utility advisors. About 12 to 15 students from all three universities do their senior design projects through CAPER annually.

“Every single project has been successfully completed,” said Dr. Badrul Chowdhury of the University of North Carolina Charlotte. “Every single team has successfully graduated.”

Chowdhury was instrumental in the program’s launch, has been CAPER’s site director at UNC Charlotte since the inception and has been in academia since 1987. He’s seen dramatic changes in the energy industry’s hunger for engineers and for students’ interest in the field.

Decades ago, workforce development was largely seen as a university responsibility, he said, and there was vastly more distance between the industry and academic sectors.

By the 1990s, fewer students were drawn to power-industry careers. Computers, communications and emerging web technology became magnets for bright young minds.

“It became a question of ‘How do we make power sexy?’” Chowdhury said. Then along came the smart grid, and renewable energy grew appealing.

The topic for fall 2022 CAPER participants: batttery energy storage systems.

Duke Energy was soon turning to the universities to help develop engineers for electrical and nuclear careers, he said. Electrical engineering had restored its appeal; enrollment rebounded.

Today, students are drawn to emerging technologies such as solar and renewable energy integration in the power grid. Many CAPER projects have focused on improving battery storage, an issue across many growth industries.

Duke Energy, Savannah River National Laboratory and Dominion Energy are the major industry drivers for CAPER, sharing the same Southeastern footprint with the participating universities.

For the energy industry, the Southeast has particular challenges: It attracts fierce storms, is served by nuclear energy, and parts of the region – especially North Carolina – have long been national leaders in solar generation.

And no other region in the nation is growing faster in power demand than the Southeast. But the region is faced with the same problems of utilities nationwide – rising customer appetites for cleaner and more renewable power generation while updating infrastructure.

It is an era of innovation; developing the next generation of engineers is key. This is reflected in recent research topics in CAPER, including power delivery systems, energy efficiency, analytics and energy policy and economics.

After CAPER at UNC Charlotte, Micaela Coco De Marco got a job with EnergyUnited in Statesville, N.C.

Beyond coaching and special attention seniors get from professors and industry advisors, students in CAPER meet twice with peers and mentors from the other universities.

In the fall, they present project outlines, the research path and early obstacles. In the second semester, they present their results.

Mohamed Hurshe served on a team of four in his senior project for CAPER in 2017-18 at UNC Charlotte, working on developing optimal meter placement strategies/algorithms.

“It was overwhelming at the beginning,” said Hurshe, particularly because of the necessary computer coding and the learning curve of the simulation software. With perseverance and good coaching, it all paid off.

“It was a good introduction to the real world,” he said. “It tests you to your limits and shows you how to adapt.”

One other benefit: After graduation, he went to work for Duke Energy, where he is in the transmission engineering department. It wasn’t long after starting that he saw the importance of putting fault sensors at the most effective spot and recognized the value of their project.

Micaela Coco De Marco worked on a CAPER team of four from UNC Charlotte in 2020-21 examining minute-by-minute data for a year from Duke Energy’s Rankin Avenue substation in Asheville, N.C. They designed a system that balanced battery charging cycles against peak demand, studied hosting capacity and operational efficiency and projected demand growth for the substation’s next quarter century.

“This project was what made me want to go into the power industry. I was able to fall in love with this industry. Power and energy are so cool.”

– Coco De Marco

“When first given this kind of project, you have no experience in the field of how a substation works,” Coco De Marco said. “Some of us had no experience in battery types and system operations.”

They also had to learn Duke Energy's software and industry standards.

“This project was what made me want to go into the power industry,” said Coco De Marco, now foothills regional line engineer with EnergyUnited in Statesville, N.C. “I was able to fall in love with this industry. Power and energy are so cool.”

Duke Energy Foundation supports CAPER.

Duke Energy Foundation President Amy Strecker said there are multiple advantages – the meetings are vital learning experiences; they expose top talent to industry leaders and help students in job placement.

“Students tell us this is one of their best collegiate experiences,” Strecker said. She thinks the payoff in investing in the minds of the future is invaluable.

“It’s a wonderful applicable learning experience for students. It exposes them to the energy business and our company. That’s a double win.”

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