Na Li, assistant professor of electrical engineering and applied mathematics, at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) has been selected to receive at Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation. The award is one of the most prestigious for up-and-coming researchers in science and engineering.

The $500,000 CAREER Award will support Li’s research into one of the most formidable technological challenges today: How to design smarter, autonomous power grids.

Twentieth century power grids are struggling to keep up in a 21st century world. Population growth and the proliferation of electronic devices are pushing demand for electricity past the grid’s capability. Smart, energy-efficient homes and appliances struggle to connect with a grid not designed for two-way communication and intermittent renewable energy sources such wind and solar, which can vary in production minute by minute, are upsetting the grid’s delicate demand-supply balance.  

“There needs to be a transformative new approach to power grids that can coordinate the large number of distributed energy sources, handle the high uncertainty involved in the renewable generation and call upon customers to actively participate,” said Li. “This requires improving the sensing, communication, and computational resources of the grid.” 

With support from the CAREER award, Li will develop distributed coordination algorithms to optimize the distribution of energy resources and design incentive schemes such as pricing, rewards and payoffs to promote customer participation.

“This is a really big challenge to tackle but we are working with other researchers, National Labs and industry partners, including utility companies and interdependent system operators (ISO) to develop the right models and methodologies and test them on real systems,” Li said. 

Li received the B.S. degree in mathematics in 2007 from Zhejiang University in China and a Ph.D. in control and dynamical systems in 2013 from California Institute of Technology. She completed a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining SEAS.

The CAREER program encourages the integration of research and education goals in pursuit of a "discovery process in which the excitement of research is enhanced by inspired teaching and enthusiastic learning." Li is currently teaching ES 158: Feedback Systems: Analysis and Design and ES 202: Estimation and Control of Dynamical System.