BNL’s Villaran aims to improve solar energy

BNL’s Villaran aims to improve solar energy

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Michael Villaran has been able to maintain his own energy levels while he’s running long distances. The 64-year-old electric power engineer and principal engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory has completed 10 marathons.

Villaran, who has been at BNL for 27 years, knows a thing or two about other forms of energy as well: the kind that heats houses and provides electricity.

He is a staff engineer in the Sustainable Energy Technology Department, a group that started in 2010. BNL created the group when the campus became a host site for the Long Island Solar Farm, which delivers about 32 megawatts of peak alternating-current power to the Long Island Power Authority substation.

Some of the research at the station has included looking at how changes in weather affect the plant. Additionally, researchers are exploring the long-term effects the area climate has on the plant parts and system.

As a part of the solar farm agreements, BNL is building the Northeast Solar Energy Research Center. Construction of the first portion of the NSERC is expected to be completed by the middle of this month. The NSERC will support research on grid integration, energy storage and distributed energy, among other areas.
For the Long Island Solar Farm, Villaran “came up with the concept of the electric power instrument monitoring system,” he said. He has also contributed to a design with the new research facility that uses a similar electric power instrument monitoring system.

Villaran’s colleagues appreciate his contribution. He is “absolutely essential in this capacity because he can manage from a business and engineering perspective simultaneously,” said Paul Giannotti, a senior electrical engineer at BNL.

Giannotti said he has been assisting Villaran in working on the NSERC, which is “a very exciting project because it will answer many questions on the future viability of solar power stations, especially in the more cloudy regions of the northeast.”

Electrical engineers often work closely with meteorologists, hoping to get a better read on when a significant change in the weather might knock out parts of the system. An upstate partner of BNL has successfully used historical data to predict the outcome of an approaching storm on their power grid.

When he worked for Lilco, Villaran said everyone needed to provide an emergency response, because “it’s not a question of are we going to have ice storms and hurricanes,” it’s a matter of when.

Indeed, recently, BNL organized a series of utility workshops, one of which focused on applying risk techniques to utility planning, which included weather effects. That was postponed twice, once for Hurricane Sandy and again for Winter Storm Nemo.

“By looking at historical data and where and when and how severely it affects the system, they can get resources in place that could minimize the number of outages,” he said.

Villaran said BNL is working with a partner to create a high-speed monitoring system for the grids that would come at a low price, which would greatly improve the operation of the system by telling utilities when the system is in trouble and by reducing inefficiencies.

Villaran and his wife, Denise, who works in the administrative office at the Rocky Point School District, live in Rocky Point. Villaran has three sons from a previous marriage: Michael, 35, Tim, 34, and Kevin, who will be 30 this year.

After his divorce from his first wife, Villaran had sole custody of his children for several years, which meant he “had to be a wiz at scheduling. There were some days when three people were playing in three different sports in three different locations.” One Saturday, he said, he was in and out of the car 30 times. He appreciates the support of his parents, who pitched in regularly.

Villaran has been an active participant since around 1999 in a mentoring program for the Longwood School District for children with various difficulties and hardships. “Now that I have no children around, it’s fun to work with these kids,” he said.

Villaran said his team, and utilities experts, are excited about the creation of the new NSERC. “Electric utilities are interested in trying out ideas for the operation of their distribution systems,” he said. “They’ll try some ideas in a setting like we’ll make available here, before deploying [them] in the field.”