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Domijan focuses on smart energy projects

portrait of Alex Domijan

One of Alex Damijan's focuses is to redevelop the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus as a smart energy community.

Published March 22, 2012

When Alex Domijan arrived at UB last fall, he brought with him a center, a laboratory and part of a $12 million program that promises to go a long way toward providing a major jolt to energy, redevelopment, education and the workforce across the campus and community, as well as nationally.

“It’s not just technology. You certainly need to have policy and management involved in the direction of what you’re going to do with energy.”
Alex Domijan, James Clerk Maxwell Professor
Department of Electrical Engineering

The James Clerk Maxwell Professor in the UB Department of Electrical Engineering, Domijan is a specialist in smart-energy systems. He was a member of the faculties of the universities of Florida and South Florida that developed many smart-energy grids and pilot programs. One of the developments—Energy Smart Florida—is the largest smart-grid energy initiative in the world.

“In Buffalo, there weren’t specialists in my field, so that’s bringing new excitement both to me and people I’m trying to work with,” he says. “I was also lucky to bring with me a special and brilliant researcher from Florida, Professor Arif Islam (now a UB research assistant professor in electrical engineering and the soon-to-be-transplanted center), a longtime collaborator and expert on smart grids.”

One focus, according to Domijan, is to redevelop the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) as a smart-energy community. “We’re trying to make that a healthy community involving the high-tech area, the medical professionals and the hospitals there, but also the disadvantaged communities that are surrounding that. Hopefully, as this is being developed, it will blossom into a redevelopment of the downtown area,” he says.

Domijan says he’s also trying to collaborate with University Facilities to help the unit become more efficient in terms of its operations. “The facilities people here are doing just an outstanding job, and I think it’s wonderful for research faculty like me to be able to collaborate with the folks in facilities so that we can expand into new efforts in research,” he says.

“We would work with facilities to save energy on campus and find new ways of monitoring and data gathering, among other things. We would look into financial markets; better pricing of electricity; renewable energy systems, such as solar, hydro, biomass and wind; natural gas and electric vehicles; moving the campus to a true end-to-end smart grid; and the weather phenomena—because weather is an intricate part of how much energy you use. And we’re looking at educating students in these new efforts and bringing in additional faculty collaborators for work in this field.”

Domijan has been a major power innovator in Florida over the past 25 years. He will be establishing The Power Center for Utility Explorations, for which he will serve as director, in the Commons building directly across from the Student Union on the North Campus in about three months.

The mission of the center is to explore energy issues in a comprehensive manner and to conduct research in energy and power systems for service activities, such as the BNMC. “One of the things I brought with me is an educational grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. All together, that’s about a $12 million program and UB is one part of that program, along with about eight other institutions,” he explains.

“We’re trying to develop the next generation of the workforce out of that. It involves curriculum development and the delivery of courses,” he says. “The jobs are for professionals seeking entry to the power/energy industry, as well as retraining existing professionals. These are not just for the typical jobs, but for jobs that are being created as the updated energy grids are being developed.”

Domijan notes that the center is involved in education, research activity and service. “One part of the center is developing laboratories, learning facilities and pilot programs where you’re actually implementing many of these thoughts,” he says. “The power field is the only field that deals with energy issues comprehensively from generation to transmission and distribution issues,” he says, calling it a “modern, holistic systems approach” that dovetails with the new way of training employees.

His laboratory, called the Power and Energy Applied Research Laboratory (PEARL), will be on the first floor of Bonner Hall. The facility was the first lab in the world to generate three-phase voltages and currents that could be applied to devices under test in an arbitrary manner.

“Arbitrary means realistic voltage and current, which are inclusive of unbalanced and harmonic rich conditions; that is, we can replicate in the lab real-world conditions,” he explains. “These, then, affect all sorts of end-use and power-delivery devices, such as relays, motors, transformers, and all sorts of items on the customer end, such as lights, HVAC, computer systems and more.

“As energy systems are becoming more and more stressed as people are demanding more and more energy,” Domijan says, ”you’re seeing increased concern about power quality and reliability issues, and how the overall smart-energy grid may be monitored and controlled to incorporate both conventional and renewable portfolio standards, and demand-response capabilities. And so our laboratory here is intended to be a focus to bring students together to examine those kinds of issues,” he observes.

Domijan participated in the development of the energy-diversification initiative, one of 16 proposals recently awarded funding through the “3 E Fund” created by President Satish K. Tripathi to advance UB’s international stature and student experience. This collaborative initiative, designed to help UB lead the reinvigoration of the area’s energy economy, will bring together research efforts in the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Law School and the School of Management.

“It’s not just technology. You certainly need to have policy and management involved in the direction of what you’re going to do with energy,” he explains.

Domijan has seen the need to change the traditional utility system that has been in place for a century. He helped develop the model power system of the future, calling it FRIENDS (Flexible, Reliable and Intelligent Electrical eNergy Delivery Systems). The FRIENDS smart grid accommodates both centralized power and distributed power generation, such as wind farms and photovoltaic power plants. It also includes a multi-lane highway of information between supply and demand, consumers and utilities, and an intelligent network aware of weather conditions, potential disasters and restoration of energy services.

“Energy was not considered so important maybe 10 years ago, but now it really is. It’s actually one of the things that we go to war on and it’s very intricately tied to our economy. So if you can make your systems more efficient but use the electricity and natural gas wisely, you make the productivity of people that much better. And you make the U.S. economy in general more competitive with other nations,” he says.

Originally from Boonton, N.J., Domijan was inspired to become an electrical engineer by his father, an electrical contractor working on many buildings in nearby Manhattan. The youngster would accompany his father on project estimates of different buildings, including the World Trade Center. “I remember helping him to estimate costs for the different electrical systems that would be in there. I knew I was going to be a professor and an energy engineer ever since I was in high school,” he says.

Domijan is getting to know the campus and community, and embracing the lifestyle here. He resides in a vintage home near Delaware Park with his wife, Anne Curtis, professor and chair of the Department of Medicine.

“The community of scholars, government and industry here is fantastic,” he declares. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with state representatives and the city, as well as UB leaders and faculty from the Office of the Vice Presidident for Research and Economic Development, Office of Sustainability, Facilities, STOR, Engineering, Medicine and many more.

“I’m especially encouraged by the wonderful interactions with progressive organizations, such as the BNMC, National Grid, National Fuel, GE, NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority), NYPA (New York Power Authority and CUBRC, to name just a few. We have a strong basis to form an energy hub for our region, and that can be a leader nationally and internationally in comprehensive energy efforts.

“This area is the birthplace of the AC power industry,” he notes. “It’s a very interesting place to be. It was called the ‘City of Light,’ but it hasn’t been considered the City of Light for quite a long time. We’ve got to find how to encourage that again and be at the forefront of energy developments.”