The Role of Chemical Engineers in Smart Grid Development

Posted by Thomas Leusner on

By Temilola Famakinwa, Ecolab, Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN

On October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report, stating that key changes are necessary to reduce current CO2 levels in the atmosphere by 40% by 2030.1 Failure to do so poses risks to the livability of certain regions. Major policy and lifestyle changes are required, as are intense financial investments in technology, and natural and synthetic CO2 capture. As work on the development and implementation of smart grid technologies and infrastructure continues to gain importance in today’s environmental climate, engineers are needed with skill sets applicable to challenge areas in smart grid development.

Traditionally, smart grid engineers have been predominantly individuals with electrical or electronics engineering degrees.2 However, there are opportunities for chemical engineers to bring their training and expertise to smart grid design and development. Today, Bachelor’s and graduate level chemical engineering curriculums offer product – and industry – focused courses such as air pollution control, tissue engineering, organometallic material synthesis, process digitization and control.  These skills are growing in importance to smart grid design and development.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a smart grid is a supply- and demand-responsive electricity network that uses renewable and nonrenewable distributed energy resources (DERs), metering devices, and digital and control technology to manage and distribute electricity across regions on different scales.3 Fluid network operation poses an interesting engineering problem for one general reason:

The network is made up of multiple operating components – generation, storage, and distribution. Each component has its own impact on the overall quality of energy, must be able to communicate with the other components in real time, and should be able to be operated in isolation or as part of the overall system.

Challenges and Key Drivers for Smart Grid Development

One of the key drivers in smart grid technology adoption is the mitigation of global warming through CO2 emission cuts. This is exemplified in the market growth for electric vehicles; the IEA estimates that by 2050, 10% of generated electricity will be used in transportation.3 This would strain the grid and increase peak demand. In lieu of an infrastructural overhaul, elements of smart grid technology can be introduced as a cost-effective option.

The grid’s peak demand load offers another improvement area.  The demand for energy is dependent on region, consumer market, time of day, and seasonality, among other factors. The current grid is built to handle the maximum demand, but during lulls in demand, electricity is wasted. The one way supply of energy – based on utility companies’ understanding of system-level demand behavior – leaves room for energy and cost waste. Utility costs are high due to an unnuanced approach to the electricity demand and supply market. If customers are brought into the process of controlling electrical usage through innovative dashboard technologies, smart appliances, and government regulation, peak demand can be better managed.

In addition to peak demand management, grid infrastructure modernization is necessary. Distributed energy sources, both renewable and, to a lesser degree, nonrenewable, will eventually need to be tied into the grid. Furthermore, improved distribution lines which are minimally susceptible to weather and security attacks must be designed and introduced. These updates require a large capital investment, but smart grid technologies give the opportunity to continue using existing infrastructure efficiently, while simultaneously introducing new infrastructure.

Security is a major concern with a highly networked, two-way communicating electricity grid system. A smart grid needs to be designed with contingencies that allow it to operate around failures in the system. On a practical note, if grid operators can ensure grid security from cyber-attacks, government stakeholders will be more likely to pass regulations that accelerate smart grid deployment.

Where do ChemEs Fit in the Development Process?

Chemical engineers can contribute to smart grid development in distributed generation integration, transmission enhancement, distribution management, electric vehicle charging, and energy storage.3 Energy storage technologies are necessary for an electrical grid to be flexible and responsive to customer demand and generators’ supply. Mature energy storage technologies have been predominantly operated mechanically. However, R&D on battery energy storage (BES) technologies has been promising in recent years. As chemical engineers, we are trained in chemistry, product development, and material science and engineering, and are well positioned to work on BES. The IEA also states that superconductors are a key component for transmission enhancement technologies.3 This is another area where ChemEs can improve product design.

Process control, process design, and modelling are other ChemE skills that can be leveraged in smart grid development. As stated, the electrical grid comprises several highly distributed systems. Feedback models are vital in such networks to ensure real time communications. Another layer of complexity is that within the large – scale grid system, there are subsystems which must be able to communicate using compatible time scales, language, and standards. Training in process control and multi-scale system modelling would be useful in solving such problems.4

As the global population and demand for energy rises, there will be an increased push for smart grid deployment. Given the complexity and scale of the work ahead, disciplines outside of electrical and electronic engineering will be needed to take on the challenge of designing and implementing new technologies. Chemical engineers interested in this area of work should not shy away from the opportunity.


Temilola Famakinwa, is a chemist at Ecolab, in Minneapolis – St. Paul. She is an avid football (soccer) fan and spends her time playing or watching Arsenal. You can reach her at