How human behaviour can affect smart grids

  • September 6, 2023
  • Steve Rogerson
Long Zhao, assistant professor of electrical engineering at South Dakota Mines.

A professor at South Dakota Mines university has won a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study consumer behaviour patterns for future smart grids.

Modern technologies can assist in routing electricity from the power being generated to the areas where it is in demand efficiently and economically. Smart grids enable power from multiple sources, such as wind farms, rooftop solar panels, hydroelectric dams and large coal-fired power plants. A part of the smart grid is a bit like a set of traffic signals that help move power where and when it’s needed; more power can be generated and distributed when demand is high and electricity flow can be reduced or sent into storage devices when demand is low.

Long Zhao, assistant professor of electrical engineering and the director of the Smart Grid & Energy Research Lab at Mines, said there was a great deal of effort underway right now to build the technology and infrastructure needed to run smart grids, but one thing was missing from current research.

“We need to study the human factor,” he said. “The most important part of the equation is people, and we are trying to understand human behaviour to help build the most robust and fully functional smart grid models.”

The NSF is funding Zhao’s research with a grant of nearly $200,000 over the next two years. The research will analyse system wide data.

Zhao gave credit to his partners at West River Electric Association (WREA) and Elevate Rapid City. He said the support from WREA and Elevate Rapid City was immensely valuable and helped all organisations advance their initiatives.

“The cooperation of our partners is really essential here for the success of this research,” he said. “If we can understand people’s patterns of electricity use, we can build better systems to meet their needs and save them money. This kind of work has the potential to save an average power company or utility provider millions per year.”

Sean Bestgen, lead power engineer at WREA and a Mines alumnus, added: “With the rapid growth of data in the utility space, having the resources at Mines is immensely valuable for advancing our understanding of WREA’s distribution system. This study will not only help the cooperative save money but also contribute to WREA’s spirit of innovation.”

Zhao is collaborating with fellow researcher Zhiyong Yang, department chair of marketing at Miami University, who is helping translate the human behavioural data in this study.

“We understand multiple factors can influence human behaviour and the demand for electricity, and this study will help us build better infrastructure in the future,” said Zhao.

He said the research would include surveys of members to match data trends with members’ thoughts on their own energy usage patterns. He hopes the research will give the group a peak into understanding of how consumer trends might change as rooftop solar grows. He said this decentralised system of power generation turned the average energy consumer into a producer of electricity.

“Rather than consumers we call them prosumers, as they are both producers and consumers of electricity,” he said.

In some parts of the USA and in other countries, this decentralised system of energy generation is increasing the resiliency of the grid to extreme conditions.

Zhao said modelling human behaviour so these data could be added to the future design of new smart grids, rooftop solar and other decentralised renewable energy could become even more affordable, efficient and environmentally sustainable.

He added that this research would not be possible without earlier funding from the South Dakota Board of Regents though a competitive research grant. University support though the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science has also been essential.

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines ( is an engineering, science and technology university.