Most of us might associate 5G networks with the speed of our mobile devices and communications, but these technologies also have the capability to make operations like transportation, manufacturing, and energy usage more efficient — thus, reducing environmental impact.

According to Accenture, a recent study has found that 5G networks will reduce the U.S. carbon footprint by up to 330.8 million metric tons by 2025 — the equivalent of removing 72 million passenger vehicles from the road. 5G has proven fully controllable, fully automated, highly reliable, and efficient.

At Virginia Tech, Associate Professor Ali Mehrizi-Sani of the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) is helping lead the conversation through his research on 5G and climate change. Mehrizi-Sani is also an expert in the area of cybersecurity communications for the U.S. electric grid.

Although notable companies nationwide have pledged zero-emissions goals in the coming decades, the current infrastructure of the U.S. electrical grid was not designed to handle the increased generation from renewable energy sources or the charging demands that accompany electric vehicles and other electric energy use. With 5G, we can utilize the grid and renewable technologies more efficiently, thereby lessening our environmental impact. 

On Nov. 16, the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI) researcher attended an event hosted by Punchbowl News. The journalist-founded and member-based news source invited Mehrizi-Sani to join Sen. Mark Warner and Nick Ludlum, senior vice president and chief communications officer at CTIA, for a fireside chat about 5G’s impact on climate change

Outside view of the Hawk N' Dove restaurant in DC
Attendees enter Hawk 'N' Dove in Washington, D.C., for the Punchbowl News event with special guest speakers Sen. Mark Warner, Nick Ludlum, and Virginia Tech Associate Professor Ali Mehrizi-Sani. Photo courtesy of CTIA.

The conversation took place at Hawk ‘N’ Dove in Washington, D.C., where more than 50 House and Senate staff, members of the telecom and technology industries, and academic leaders were in attendance. The event was the third in a three-part series exploring the wide-ranging use of 5G technology.

The event started out with a conversation between Sen. Mark Warner and Punchbowl News founder Jake Palmer. Warner touched on his support for 5G and how it creates an opportunity to grow the Internet of Things (IoT), which can help advance smart buildings, smart cities, smart grid, and more. To get to that point, the 5G power grid will be a necessary step to ensuring these IoT devices can operate effectively and efficiently. For example, Warner described the connectivity needed to operate offshore wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean and how 5G can meet those needs.

Mehrizi-Sani and Ludlum then joined the fireside chat to talk about current work toward this end-goal. Ludlum focused on the importance of deploying these 5G networks to enable the use of other renewable energies. Mehrizi-Sani mentioned that his team has been working on a 5G testbed for a little over three years in preparation for implementing more renewable energy sources and ensuring their efficiency and cybersecurity.

Mehrizi-Sani hopes that more policymakers and influencers begin to invest in the electric grid and 5G/NextG technologies because without them, integrating renewable energy sources will be difficult and the grid could be at risk of cyberattack. 

Mehrizi-Sani addresses the crowd at a news event in DC
Associate Professor Ali Mehrizi-Sani addresses the crowd during the conversation surrounding 5G and climate change. Photo courtesy of CTIA.

“A very important feature of 5G, which has not been present in previous generations of wireless communication, is slicing,” said Mehrizi-Sani. “In this process, one physical network is divided into ‘slices’ of virtual networks. This allows us to allocate network resources to different slices based on exactly what they need. This leads to lower cost, better use of communication infrastructure, and higher security.”

For example, in the context of the power system, renewable energy sources would need a slice that responds quickly because of the fast-acting power electronics involved. In contrast, a hydro generator is slower but may need higher network availability. Each slice would be customized accordingly.

“The best part is that these slices are isolated from each other,” said Mehrizi-Sani. “That isolation means there is no leaking of data from one slice to another, which inherently helps with the cybersecurity and privacy aspects.” 

There are, of course, still other ways for cyber intruders to attack the system, which is why Mehrizi-Sani stressed the importance of training future engineers for careers in the industry.

“About 30 percent of engineering jobs in the power sector remain unfilled due to lack of qualified candidates,” said Mehrizi-Sani. “To add to that, more than 60 percent of power engineering employees are eligible to retire over the next decade.”

Mehrizi-Sani and his fellow ECE and CCI researchers hope to educate and train the next generation of engineers through related research projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Defense (DoD), and others. 

One of those projects, funded by CCI, includes a testbed that allows for integration of power system simulation and 5G simulation on a microgrid. Mehrizi-Sani and his team will use the testbed to conduct controlled experiments that can then be analyzed to understand impact on a larger scale (i.e., the current electrical grid).

“Our team recently worked on the design of 5G-enabled microgrids for military installations,” said Mehrizi-Sani. “In this work, we discussed the required cybersecure measures for control of renewable assets within the power system of the installations, to ensure resiliency and continuity of service for these critical establishments."

Thanks to experts like Mehrizi-Sani and support from the commonwealth, Virginia Tech continues to push the envelope in terms of research surrounding next generation wireless systems, the grid, and cybersecurity that will have widespread benefits and applications. A recent poll from Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of Americans favor taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050. Virginia Tech continues to champion these efforts; for example, the university’s Climate Action Commitment pledges to use 100 percent renewable electricity on campus by 2030.

“We are at a pivotal moment in the power system where, after close to three decades of research, development, and demonstration, the vision of small dispersed renewable, inverter-based power resources for the bulk of energy generation is close to becoming a reality,” Mehrizi-Sani said.

Watch a recap of the full event here.


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