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Connecting with communities in rural Alaska

Although she took a meandering path to find her passion, Phylicia Cicilio’s research in rural Alaska brings together her multiple interests in engineering, the environment, and helping rural communities. Her project is to improve a microgrid in Nome that serves 3,500 people and includes a wind farm and diesel generators.

The project has struck a chord with funders too. In her first year of graduate school, Cicilio’s research has already been funded by both the Evans Family Graduate Fellowship in Humanitarian Engineering at Oregon State University and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

It’s a project that will have real-world impact on the community in Nome. “People in rural Alaska pay 15 times more than everyone else in the U.S., so one goal could be to see how inexpensively we can produce electricity,” Cicilio says.

Growing up in rural Vermont, Cicilio was surrounded by a culture that valued environmentalism, so she has long been interested in renewable energy. Although she considered a path in environmental science, engineering won out because she liked the idea of creating something new.

Her initial degree was in chemical engineering from the University of New Hampshire, and after a year-long hiatus from engineering (as a brewer at Magic Hat Brewery in Vermont), she took a job as an energy analyst with an energy-efficiency company.

“That’s when I realized I wanted to work with the electric grid rather than just one type of energy. In chemical engineering you get pinpointed to a certain energy type, and I didn’t want to be narrowed down like that,” Cicilio says.

I like rural communities, so any chance I get to work with them really interests me.

Cicilio was interested in Oregon State University because of the well-known faculty in the area of power systems. But she applied to both chemical and electrical engineering programs for graduate school to keep her options open. It was a visit with Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering, that changed her course for good.

“He described the kinds of projects that I could be involved with here, and that sealed the deal for me,” she says.

This spring, Cicilio and Cotilla-Sanchez met with collaborators, Marc Mueller-Stoffels and Jeremy Kasper, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and settled on the project in Nome because it was a community that has been less studied than others and had easily accessible data.

Part of the project will be to analyze the microgrid behavior during events that put stress on the system, such as a storm that damages a wind turbine, to better integrate renewable generation and storage systems. She will be modeling the microgrid using power data from the generators and at the consumption points which has been collected over the past five years.

“From the simulation I can play with different options to see how to best optimize their system,” Cicilio says. “I’m excited because I think I can do a lot!”

But there is more to the project for her than the engineering aspects.

“I’m really excited to travel there and work with the people,” she says, “I like rural communities, so any chance I get to work with them really interests me.”


Phylicia Cicilio is also the organizer of the EECS Graduate Student Women’s Group which is looking to connect with OSU EECS alumna to serve as mentors. If you are interested please email Phylicia Cicilio.

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