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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Engineering, Business Professors Designing Game to Help Dominion Virginia Power with Energy Decisions

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Virginia is fortunate to possess abundant natural resources and a variety of power facilities. Whether it's productive coalfields in the western part of the state, or the nuclear facility in Surry and Louisa counties, or sunshine to create solar energy, Virginia has many ways to meet its energy needs.

But how should the state's dominant energy utility allocate resources to provide maximum benefit to citizens, the economy and the environment? How can its electricity infrastructure distribute safe, reliable, affordable energy while facing stricter environmental rules?

Dominion Virginia Power deals with these issues daily as it manages its electric grid. So the Dominion Foundation has provided a grant to two Old Dominion University researchers taking an innovative approach to energy decision-making.

Mamadou Seck, assistant professor of engineering management and systems engineering in the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology; and Erika Marsillac, associate professor of information technology and decision sciences in the Strome College of Business, have received a $35,000 grant from the Dominion Foundation. Throughout the school year they will develop "Spark!," a video game that will challenge players to balance the competing interests involved with developing and distributing reliable and affordable energy to the entire state.

"Dominion is pleased to support Old Dominion University's innovative gaming project that will engage students in complex and strategic decision-making needed to manage electric infrastructure effectively," said Hunter A. Applewhite, president of the Dominion Foundation. "The interactive scenarios touch on the economic, policy, capacity and environmental realities that energy managers face on a daily basis."

The award was announced as part of the Dominion Higher Education Partnership grant program. The Old Dominion project was chosen because it touches on several grant target areas, including engineering, energy and environmental learning.

This semester, Lionel Toba, a Ph.D. student in systems engineering, is working with Seck on the initial game design, relying on other games that have involved decision-making connected to systems - such as the popular board game Power Grid, and a similar online game developed in the Netherlands - as a starting point.

Next semester, a small group of students will be involved in game development and testing. Once the game is launched in May 2017, it will be made available online, accessible through an internet browser, as well as a mobile app.

The completed game will also be offered to business and engineering students around the state. An annual competition is also planned, to incentivize mastery of the game, which is relying on information provided by Dominion to make the game experience authentic.

"After playing the game, students will be more knowledgeable about the energy industry and better prepared to consider and fulfill employment opportunities in that field, producing a higher quality workforce to support economic success for the Commonwealth," Seck said.

Marsillac, whose research is in green supply chain management, said the "Electricity Game Challenge" will replicate the decisions an entity like Dominion wrestles with in the complex field of energy generation and distribution.

"The goal is to design the most economically viable and environmentally friendly power infrastructure, to generate reliable, low-cost electricity for citizens," Marsillac said. "However, these decisions are interrelated. We have lots of coal, but there is an environmental impact. Solar has a smaller footprint, but it's expensive. It's a balancing act."

The Dominion Foundation is dedicated to improving the physical, social and economic well-being of the communities served by Dominion companies, including Dominion Virginia Power. The Foundation supports nonprofit causes that meet basic human needs, protect the environment, support education and promote community vitality. Dominion Foundation grants are funded by shareholder dollars and not borne by customers.

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