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Research: Federal confidence in West Virginia University is justified

Among the challenges in transitioning our energy economy to one that incorporates more renewable fuel sources is how to equip our aging power grid — particularly our power plants — to remain useful in a new era. Fortunately, the folks at the U.S. Department of Energy seem to understand West Virginia is one of the best places to start tackling that challenge.

Researchers at West Virginia University have received a $7.5 million grant to study how best to help power plants “quickly cycle from using fossil fuels to generate power to a renewable energy source, such as wind or solar, when those sources are available,” according to WVU.

“Renewable energy is not stable,” said Xingbo Liu, associate dean for research and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. “Wind speed changes every day and solar power is only available when the sun is shining. On the consumer side, no matter what happens, you still want your house to be heated and your air conditioning to be working.”

But our power plants were not designed to deal with those kinds of cycles.

“These types of power plants were designed to start and run forever until there was a planned shutdown for maintenance,” Liu said. “The problem now is that the plants have much more cyclic operations than they were designed for. When a new cycle begins, it puts stress on the (steam boiler and turbine system) joints, and they begin to crack.”

It is encouraging to know federal officials have enough confidence in WVU’s research and problem-solving capabilities that they are supporting the search for a solution here. Perhaps it is a sign more research dollars will be headed our way, as the state is both at the epicenter of an energy transition that would have been unfathomable a few decades ago AND filled with the kinds of great minds perfectly suited to find the answers.

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