Thomas Overbye

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Thomas J. Overbye
Thomas J. Overbye

Q: What is your area of expertise?
A: I work in the power and energy systems area here in the department, and my particular area of expertise is high voltage electric power systems. I study mostly the electric transmission grid.

Q: Give me a brief synopsis of your education and career.
A: Well, I actually got all my degrees from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I got a bachelor’s degree in 1983 in electrical and computer engineering. I then went out and worked for an electric utility, Madison Gas and Electric, for three years. Then I went back to grad school and got a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering in 1988 and a PhD in 1991. I’ve been here at the University of Illinois since July 1991.

Q: Why did you become an engineer?
A: As a kid, I really enjoyed working with mechanical things, and then as I got older, electrical circuits, so I  was always interested in how things work. Then I got more interested in designing better things. I  enjoyed math and science when I was in school, so it seemed like a natural fit. My dad was a mechanical engineer, so that probably had some influence as well.   

Q: How did you become interested in research aspects of power systems and what keeps you interested?
A: The way I got interested in electric power systems was working at an electric utility part-time as an undergraduate. What I find here at Illinois in teaching undergraduate students, is very few students start out their electrical engineering careers with an interest in power systems. I certainly didn’t. It was actually one area I thought I definitely did not want to go into.  But then I got the utility job and found out that there were actually very interesting problems associated with the power grid.  Also when I was growing up, I liked looking at maps.  What I found was that the electric power grid, being a networked system, had some similarities with maps.  So my childhood interest in maps led nicely to a career in system studies, in my case power systems. What keeps me interested is great colleagues and students, and new problems.   

Q: Why did you decide to teach at the University of Illinois?
A: As a graduate student I knew the University of Illinois was a great engineering school, so I was quite excited when [Professor] Pete Sauer called me to tell me Illinois wanted me to come for an interview and I was very honored to get the subsequent job offer. It was certainly the reputation of the school and its faculty that drew me to the University of Illinois. I’ve very much enjoyed working here over the last 16 years, and that’s due to a number of factors. Certainly a major factor is the colleagues I’ve worked with here in the department. We’ve just got great group of people here in ECE, and that is particularly true in the power and energy area.  Certainly another reason is the students – surely the best anywhere!

Q: Tell me about a research accomplishment you’re proud of.
A: I’m very proud of the work I’ve done in the area of power system visualization. One of my goals, as an engineering researcher and educator, has been to help people understand how systems work, with my particular focus on the electric power grid.  Over the last 10 or 12 years with the help of my colleagues and students I’ve done work in visualizing the electric power system.  A particularly nice aspect of this research is its results have been picked and used by the electric utility industry.  So I can go into electric control centers around the world and see work that I’ve done being applied. So that’s very satisfying.

Q: What role do students play in your research?
A: Well the grad students are the ones who do most of the work.  When I started here as an assistant professor 16 years ago, I spent a lot of time doing actual research.  As I’ve gotten further along in my career, with more graduate students, I’ve found I have to spend more time supervising the graduate students and less time on direct research.  One of the nice benefits of working in this department is we can recruit the top graduate students.  I’ve got six right now, two of whom have just started, and it’s really a joy to interact with them.

Of course I still do research myself, but there’s more of a time constraint. As a faculty member, you have more constraints on your time with teaching, supervision, meetings, writing grants and travel.  Usually the projects I work on directly are closely aligned with what my students are doing.   

Q: What are you focused on today?
A: I continue to work in the area of power system visualization, but one of the areas that’s most exciting to me and one that I’ve done at least some research in is looking at how to change our country’s energy infrastructure to make it one that is sustainable. This is a major challenge and one that may require some substantial societal changes. Currently in the United States we get about 85 percent of our total energy from fossil fuels. To a large extent, fossil fuels are what powered the tremendous changes that occurred in the 20th century, and they are what continue to drive our economy today. But with concerns about global warming and petroleum depletions, it seems pretty clear to me that in the not too distant future we’re going to need to make some significant changes. Most of the alternative energy technologies are electrical in nature. I think the electric power grid is going to play a very important role in getting us to sustainable energy infrastructure. However, it’s certainly a big challenge.

In working in this area and reading the popular press, what I’ve found is that the electric transmission grid is often the overlooked part of the energy infrastructure. The focus is often on generation technologies, such as windmills. But relatively little thought is given to the significant challenges that will occur as large amounts of these technologies are integrated into the existing electric grid. Currently we get about 0.15 percent of our energy from wind power, but it is growing at something like 25 percent per year.  As this value starts to become more significant, we may need to make major enhancements to the transmission grid. I recently finished a project where we were looking at trying to substantially increase the capacity of transmission grid in Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and northern Texas. The reason for the project was that part of the country has a lot of wind potential, but with little population and few transmission lines. So if we want to bring that wind energy into places where they don’t have much wind, like the Southeast, we’re going to need significant transmission grid enhancements. 

Q: What technology that’s under development are you most anxious or excited to see completed?
A: I’m pretty excited about a project we currently have that is looking at the impact of pluggable hybrid electric vehicles on the electric power grid. The idea behind the pluggable hybrid is to increase the battery capacity of hybrid cars to allow people to drive say 20 or 30 miles all electric.  Studies have shown that most people only drive that far on most days. So if we can provide the needed energy for the wall socket, there is a possibility to greatly decrease our gasoline consumption. We’ll probably never get completely electric cars that can match the range of a regular car. But with a pluggable hybrid, folks can do most of their driving all electric. But when they need to go further the car, being a hybrid, can switch to gasoline. Of course, having a large number of cars plugged in recharging will have an impact on the existing power grid. The project is looking at the synergies between the operation of the existing grid and this large new, potentially controllable pluggable hybrid load.

I’m also very interested in a project that is a joint collaboration between the power faculty and faculty in computer engineering and computer science. This project, called TCIP, (Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid), is focused on making sure that the computer and communication infrastructure needed to run the power grid is secure. We all know how disruptive a blackout can be, and most people realize the need to keep the wires intact to keep our electricity flowing. But what is less recognized is the key role computers and communication play in the operation of the modern grid. The focus of the TCIP project is to protect this vital cyber infrastructure from both malicious cyber attacks and accidental failures. Over the last two years, I’ve really enjoyed getting to better know my colleagues in computer engineering and computer science and to both learn more about computer communications technologies and help them learn more about the power grid.


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