A squirrel shorting out a power pole, a transformer dysfunction or dump truck striking a line can be the difference between a relaxing evening at home with fresh home cooking right out of the oven and cold cereal in the dark.

Thanks to a three-legged collaboration of University of Idaho researchers, Inergy Solar engineers and the Idaho National Laboratory, those outages may become even less frequent - and electricity bills may become less astronomical during hot summer months or frigid winters.

"Historically, electric power was generated centrally," UI computer engineering professor Greg Donohoe said. "Today in the age of renewables, every rooftop could be a power source."

Unlike existing solar systems, which use batteries to store power, a system being worked on by the UI and Inergy Solar would be a compact, portable 5-kilowatt generator weighing less than 100 pounds that could be transported and incorporated into existing power grids and used to power individual homes.

The project involves morphing Inergy Solar's existing product - a system called Kodiak created for camping or use by those living off-the-grid - to a larger system capable of providing enough power for whole-house use.

Donohoe said the electricity not used by the homeowner would enter the grid to power a home as nearby as a neighbor to as far away a neighboring state.

Those who put power into the system would receive money from the power companies rather than a bill, and the power generated would not be wasted.

"We don't have a way to effectively store large amounts of energy for long periods of time like we do gasoline," Donohoe said. "It needs to be used right away."

While there are numerous good points about the proposed system, there are concerns as well, which is where Donohoe comes into the picture. Donohoe said he will connect Inergy with UI's Center for Secure and Dependable Systems and oversee the plan to create a local grid that can be controlled over the internet and that will be safe from outside cyberattacks.

"Now you can use the internet to control things, turn lights on and off," he said.

The possibility of the project is thanks to a $178,000 grant from the Idaho Higher Education Research Council's Global Entrepreneurial Mission program.

Shanon Quinn can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to squinn@dnews.com.

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