TAMEST Member Profile: Thomas Overbye, Ph.D. (NAE), Texas A&M University
For nearly four decades, TAMEST Member Thomas Overbye, Ph.D. (NAE), Professor and Director of Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEES) Smart Grid Center (SGC), has made a career out of providing cutting-edge innovation to the electric power grid industry.
While his early career included more than a decade working as a power system operations engineer for a gas and electric company, he has spent the last 28 years working and revolutionizing his field from an academic perspective. According to Dr. Overbye, his greatest passion is helping engineers, students, policymakers and the general public understand the complex operations of the electrical grid.
So, when Winter Storm Uri devastated the Texas power grid in February, leaving millions of Texans in the dark during the record-setting freeze, Dr. Overbye and his team were prepared to step up and help explain what went wrong and why.
TAMEST connected with Dr. Overbye to learn more about Texas’ recent grid problems and how his work aims to modernize how electricity is delivered from suppliers to consumers and to enable new electricity products, services, and markets.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I am a Professor and holder of the O’Donnell Foundation Chair III in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University (TAMU). I am originally from Wisconsin and received my B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Before starting my academic career, I was employed with Madison Gas and Electric Company. I am the original developer of PowerWorld Simulator, a co-founder of PowerWorld Corporation, and an author of a widely used Power System Analysis and Design book.
I have extensive experience in many aspects of electric power systems, including participating in or leading numerous large-scale electric grid studies.
Talk about Texas’ recent energy grid failure. What caused it?
The short answer is it was caused by the near record cold that we experienced in mid-February. Expanding a little, it was caused by various groups not being prepared for such cold weather.
The electric grid that we have in Texas is strong, and I think it is well designed. Yet it failed in many ways and evidently almost failed completely. I think at this point the most important thing that we can do is to have a thorough investigation and figure out how it can be improved.
The first step in that process is finding out exactly what happened so that we can prevent it from happening again. I believe the Smart Grid Center (SGC) can play an important role in this process. One of our focus areas is actually associated with the simulation and mitigation of such severe events.
What is Texas A&M University’s Smart Grid Center (SGC)?
The SGC of Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEES) galvanizes a number of smart grid-related activities that are underway in the A&M System and brings them under a coordinated umbrella to form partnerships essential for smart grid research, education and training.
The electric grid is rapidly changing as we seek to integrate in large amounts of renewable generation sources, provide more flexibility to the end users, and help with the electrification of transportation.
These are major challenges that require a coordinated effort for many faculties, some the SGC provides through partnerships that are funded through many different projects.
As its Director, what are your main goals for the SGC?
The Center aims to expand on its broad range of capabilities and expertise in seven key smart grid areas: Electricity Transmission/Distribution and Production/Consumption; Advanced Data Analytics for Outage Prediction, Clean Energy Enabling Technologies; Electrified Transportation System; The Built Environment; Computer Information Services; Energy-related Markets; and High Impact, Low Frequency Event Grid Contingencies.
They all come together to create an integrated infrastructure able to handle the growing power demands of residential, corporate, and public needs ranging from smart homes and plug-in electric vehicles to distribution intelligence and operation centers. A large-scale testbed facility with a smart grids control center is hosted at the Center for Infrastructure (CIR) on the RELLIS campus of Texas A&M.
The SGC works with many highly qualified and experienced faculty at Texas A&M including several members of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and two former Presidents of the IEEE Power and Energy Society.
What lessons do you hope Texas learns from the recent mass power outage?
I hope that we better prepare for these rare events moving forward.
Weather extremes are one type of rare events, however, there are others such as cyber-attacks and solar storms that can impact the earth’s magnetic field and could ultimately severely cripple our power grid.
We certainly can’t prevent all blackouts, but there is much we can do to prepare for them, to simulate them and to develop plans and mitigation strategies. The SGC faculty have lots of expertise in these areas and certainly want to partner with many moving forward!
How did Winter Storm Uri change or shift your work?
The most immediate impact for me has been in responding to many more inquiries from the press about the electric grid. The electric grid is a part of our critical infrastructure that most people would like to not think much about. I understand that and would much rather have the grid get in the news for positive reasons!
It hasn’t changed my immediate research focus much since simulating these rare events has been a research focus of mine for many years. I do suspect that going forward there will be much more interest in work focused on making the grid more resilient to these rare events.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
Mostly the way it has impacted many others at the university. That is, mostly working from home and attending lots of Zoom meetings.
I very much am looking forward to getting back to in-person meetings, including with my students and colleagues!
You came to Texas in 2017. Describe why you moved to the state and what makes you stay.
I do love living in Texas and working at Texas A&M! Texas is just a great place to live.
I spent 25 years at University of Illinois and greatly enjoyed the academic environment there and feel that the environment we have here at Texas A&M is quite similar. I like living in university towns, so College Station is a great fit.
Also, I do like the weather here, even the summers. Having grown up in Wisconsin and lived for so long in Illinois I’ve gotten my fill of cold weather, ice and snow. So, the cold weather we had in February was not anything unusual for me, but I was hoping I had totally left it behind when I moved to College Station.
What does being a TAMEST member mean to you?
Like many, I was deeply humbled and honored when I learned I had been elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 2013. I did quickly learn that the NAE is about service, both to the engineering profession and ultimately to the nation.
I feel the same about being a member of TAMEST. It is great to be a part of an organization that is focused on bringing together top people in engineering, science and medicine to advance research, innovation, education and business in our state. Texas has been a great place to live for generations, and I am happy to be a part of an organization that is focused on making our state even better!