HAZLETON, Pa. – After a six-month sabbatical at a German university and research center, an associate professor of engineering at Penn State Hazleton came back impressed by Germany’s leadership in renewable energy and committed to doing everything he can to help renewable energy play a bigger role in meeting U.S. energy needs.
Joe Ranalli, coordinator of Hazleton’s alternative energy and power generation engineering program, was working with the German Aerospace Center’s Institute for Networked Energy Systems through its connection with the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, in the German state of Lower Saxony. While Lower Saxony has about 8 million residents, compared to Pennsylvania’s 13 million, and receives comparable sunlight to Alaska, where there’s far less sunlight, it has 10 times as much installed solar capacity as Pennsylvania does — 3,500 megawatts, compared to Pennsylvania’s 350 megawatts.
“There they are, way up to the north of us, and they have 10 times as much solar capacity, despite having fewer people, and despite Pennsylvania’s solar resource being 25 percent better than theirs,” Ranalli said. “It really shows you that we’re lagging way behind.”
Ranalli’s overarching goal is to do research that will help make clean, environmentally friendly renewable energy a bigger part of the U.S. energy mix.
“If you want a future where renewable energy plays a much bigger part of our energy mix, we need technologies to pave the way,” he said.
That means, Ranalli explained, developing “smart grid” technology that makes the energy grid more resilient, accurately forecasting how much solar and wind energy can be generated over particular time periods, equipping the energy transmission system to better handle the “inherently variable” production of renewable energy, and improving energy storage technology.
The University of Oldenburg specializes in interdisciplinary and sustainable development studies and renewable energy studies with a focus on solar and wind energy. The German Aerospace Center does extensive research into aeronautics, space, energy, and other areas.
With researchers who focused on energy meteorology, Ranalli worked on a number of important projects:
• A system to forecast “irradiance” (the amount of sunlight available in a given area) over the next few hours. The system works by aiming fisheye cameras skyward to track the movement of clouds in real time, forecasting where they’re going, and mapping where and when the irradiance or radiant energy will be strongest.
• A computer vision system to identify photovoltaics or PV (solar panels) in a given geographic area. Through this system, satellite photos or aerial photos are run through a deep neural network that identifies the location of solar panels in a city or region.
• A theoretical model to predict how irradiance fluctuations smooth out as systems are brought together in a larger geographic area.
“One system might be up, another system might be down, but together they sort of average out,” Ranalli said.
Combining the findings from these projects — that is, using the “irradiance” data in conjunction with the information on the location of the PV systems — could enable a transmission or power plant operator to forecast what the solar power generation could look like during a specific time period in a specific geographic area, Ranalli noted.
“If you’re a grid operator, you need to be prepared,” he said. “If you know that there’s clouds coming in, and you know these clouds are going to be over a 10-megawatt solar plant, you can plan dispatchable power from a reserve power plant that’s going to come on to make up for the shortfall from the solar.”
As a teacher, and as coordinator of the alternative energy and power generation engineering program, Ranalli’s major goals are to help prepare multidisciplinary engineers who will be sought after by area engineering firms and the renewable energy industry.
Students in the alternative energy and power generation program — offered only at Penn State Hazleton — learn a mix of mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering.
“They have to learn aspects of all three to be able to understand alternative energy systems,” Ranalli said.
Ranalli also strives to engage students in real-world projects with area companies and agencies, as part of the “capstone” courses that come at the end of a Hazleton engineering major’s education.
“When you get a good partner and you get a good project, it really makes for a great opportunity and a great experience for the students to cap off their undergraduate degree in a really cool way,” he said.
As a student in Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College, Ranalli was able to do undergraduate research — and as a Penn State faculty member he tries to provide that same opportunity to Hazleton students.
“All Penn State education is excellent, but undergraduate research really showed that to me in a special way,” Ranalli said. “And that is part of why I wanted to be a teacher here, because I love learning and I want to pass that on to my students.”