Focus on undergraduate research: Power grid solutions in Nigeria

Oladoyin Phillips

For her senior research thesis, Oladoyin Phillips, Class of 2014, explored solutions to the electricity shortage in her home country, Nigeria. (Photo by Christopher Kwadwo Ampofo Gordon)

GROWING UP IN LAGOS, NIGERIA, Oladoyin Phillips was accustomed to the power outages that struck just as she was about to use her computer or charge her cellphone. “I was frustrated on those afternoons,” she said, “but I would remind myself that I was lucky because many Nigerians have no access whatsoever to electricity.” When it came time to select an independent research project for her senior thesis, required of all Princeton undergraduates, Phillips chose to examine solutions to Nigeria’s power problems.

Although home to vast stores of oil and natural gas, Nigeria delivers just 2 percent of the electricity typically needed to serve a nation of 168 million inhabitants. Over the last few years, the Nigerian government has privatized the power industry with the goal of improving its efficiency. But Phillips noticed that while Nigeria’s plan called for new power plants, it failed to address bottlenecks in the electricity supply chain. “I saw the opportunity to look at the entire system, from generation to transmission, and to develop strategies for improving the power sector,” she said.

Using skills she acquired while majoring in operations research and financial engineering, Philips analyzed large systems by gathering data and creating computer models. She focused on the natural gas-fired power plants that produce 80 percent of the country’s electricity (the remaining 20 percent is from hydroelectric power).

Warren Powell, professor of operations research and financial engineering, was Phillips’ adviser. “She is the kind of person who, given a few years, could have a real impact,” he said.

Using daily reports compiled during 2013 by the Transmission Company of Nigeria, a publicly owned company appointed to run the power grid, Phillips built a model that simulated the flow of energy from the fuel source to electricity generation, through the national transmission grid, and to distribution points just prior to consumer delivery.

From her analysis emerged a large-scale picture of the bottlenecks at each stage of the chain. One of the surprising findings was that most plants did not operate at full capacity, either due to maintenance issues or a shortage of natural gas. Nigeria has the largest proven natural gas reserves in Africa and the ninth largest in the world, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but there are not enough gas plants or pipes to bring the fuel to the plants.

Phillips also found that Nigeria’s transmission network was too limited to serve the existing power generated, let alone the planned expansion. The transmission lines were also organized as a radial system with few or no alternative routes for electricity to travel when blockages or backups occur.

Her conclusion: Fix existing bottlenecks before building new plants. “The first and most crucial goal while making investments in the power sector should not be to increase the available capacity in the country,” she concluded, “but rather to ensure firstly, that all of the capacity that is already available, is delivered to the end users.”

Phillips graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering in 2014 and is working at an energy and transportation company based in India.

–By Catherine Zandonella

 

Math and music spark student’s research interests

Alexander Iriza

Alexander Iriza. Photo by Denise Applewhite

WHILE PRINCETON SENIOR Alexander Iriza, of Astoria, New York, credits his parents for sparking his interest in math — his mother gave him math workbooks when he was a toddler — that was merely “a nudge” in the right direction.

For his senior thesis, required of all Princeton undergraduates, Iriza worked with Yannis Kevrekidis, the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor in Engineering, to examine specific data analysis techniques.

“The idea is to start with a dynamical system of many particles that interact with each other on the microscopic level,” Iriza explained. “It’s believed that many animal species in the wild operate in this way, with each organism having its own personal preferences but also reacting to the individuals in its vicinity. Then we seek to understand the often beautiful and complex behavior that emerges at the macroscopic level of the entire flock.”

Iriza was also a violinist in the University orchestra. His exceptional scholarship led to his being named salutatorian for the Class of 2014, delivering a speech in Latin at Commencement. Comparing the maturity and depth of Iriza’s work to that of a strong graduate student, or even a postdoc or colleague, Kevrekidis said: “His intellectual strength, his work ethic, his joy in discovery and thinking, [and] his own vision about research directions single him out among the wonderful students I have had the good fortune to work with in my 28 years in Princeton. I truly look forward to finding out what he will accomplish in his research life.”

–By Jamie Saxon