Grid Resiliency in the Spotlight

Grid resiliency has been on everyone’s mind lately. From the rolling blackouts in California during the wildfires last year to the outages in Texas this past February, ensuring we have a reliable power grid is a priority for utilities and consumers alike.

With climate change accelerating extreme weather events and making them more frequent and intense, making sure America’s electric grid is ready for whatever challenges lie ahead is critical to our clean energy future.

For this reason, the CleanTech Alliance is conducting a series of interviews with grid experts to get their thoughts on what we need to do to be ready for future threats to our electric grid.

The first interview in our series features Tim Wolf, the Senior Communications Partner of Grid Modernization at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Carl Imhoff, the Electricity Infrastructure Sector Lead at PNNL.

“Building more flexibility into the power system helps us achieve both a cleaner and a more resilient grid,” said Carl Imhoff, electricity infrastructure sector manager at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “This is why PNNL’s grid modernization research puts significant focus on technologies that increase grid flexibility, such as new sensing and control systems, energy storage, microgrids, DER integration, controllable loads, and transactive energy.”  

Carl Imhoff, PNNL

CTAIn your opinion, what is the biggest threat to our power grid?

PNNL: The greatest threats to the nation’s power grid are a combination of extreme events that include both natural disasters and extreme weather events (hurricanes, severe storms, earthquakes, wildfires) as well as man-made threats, such as cyberattacks on our nation’s energy infrastructure. While not strictly a “threat,” increasing adoption of variable generation resources – such as solar and wind energy – presents its own operational challenges to grid stability with the need to ensure there is adequate supply of power to meet demand when those assets are not available. Due to the diversity of threats and challenges, PNNL takes an “all-hazards approach” to increasing grid resilience in its work to modernize the nation’s power grid.  

CTAWhat unique natural disasters does the Northwest face that could impact grid reliability?

PNNL: While not unique to the Pacific Northwest, the increasing frequency and severity of wildfires in the western states is a continuing threat to the power system in the Pacific Northwest. The risk of seismic events in the Pacific Northwest, both onshore and offshore, continue to be a focus for utilities in their system design principles for resilience and recoverability of power system infrastructure. The Pacific Northwest also relies on an abundance of hydropower, which provides clean, renewable, and cost-effective baseload generation to meet more than half of the region’s electricity demand. These hydropower resources are dependent on the adequacy of annual precipitation and the snowpack in the mountains that rise above the Columbia River Basin. A serious or prolonged drought could imperil the ability of these resources to meet the region’s electricity demand. In addition, deep low pressure systems over the northern Pacific Ocean during the winter months regularly spawn severe windstorms that come ashore and cause outages and damage to the grid infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest.  

CTA: What emerging technologies are you excited about that improve grid resiliency?

PNNL: PNNL’s grid modernization R&D work focuses on several areas that impact grid resiliency. For example, PNNL is leading development of a new generation of advanced grid sensing and control technologies necessary to integrate dramatically higher levels of carbon-free electricity generation and flexible loads at all levels of the power system. Utilizing new approaches, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and exascale computing, these tools improve the situational awareness for operators who are managing and increasingly complex power grid, enabling them to forecast potential threats to grid stability and take appropriate corrective actions before those threats turn into cascading failures. PNNL researchers focus on several other technology categories that will be critical to grid resiliency, including new grid architectures capable of supporting significantly increased variable generation resources; new adaptive cybersecurity protections to counter continually evolving cyberthreats; development of next generation materials and systems for grid-scale energy storage; and research into new approaches for grid reliability management, such as transactive energy control.

CTA: How important is battery storage going to be in the coming years?

PNNL: Solutions to the pressing challenges of climate change, decarbonization of the energy supply, and power grid modernization require affordable, reliable, and safe energy storage deployed at scale. The ability to store electricity – through better battery technology — is critical to bringing significantly more renewable energy resources online, electrifying transportation, and maintaining grid reliability and resiliency. That means that the cost of grid energy storage technology needs to come down and performance needs to improve to drive more widespread adoption. To meet this national need, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity has selected Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, as the site for the $75 million Grid Storage Launchpad (GSL). Scheduled to open in the fall of 2023, the GSL will be a new, national R&D facility to accelerate the development of next-generation grid energy storage materials and technologies.

CTA: How is your organization planning for grid resiliency and mitigating potential outages? 

PNNL: PNNL is focused on building a cleaner, more resilient, and flexible electric power system. Fortunately, our large campus in Richland, Washington, as well as our other facilities in Seattle and Sequim, provide us with a handy laboratory in our own backyard to advance grid research while also building a more sustainable and resilient campus infrastructure. For example, The Clean Energy and Transactive Campus project (CETC) is a PNNL-led, effort that was initially supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Washington State’s Clean Energy Fund and included the University of Washington and Washington State University. The CETC project was the first of its kind to test demand-side transactive controls at a scale involving multiple commercial buildings and devices. The project includes multiple energy management technologies, including intelligent load control for automatic for smart adjustment of building energy use; market-based transactive control and coordination of building energy loads; and integration of distributed renewable energy resources. Looking ahead, PNNL will continue to look for innovative ways to reduce carbon emissions while also increasing the resiliency of its operations.


A special thanks again to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for being our first in a series of interviews about grid resiliency. You can learn more about how PNNL is modernizing our electric grid here and how they’re improving grid reliability in the face of extreme events here.

Keep an eye out for more interviews and articles about grid resiliency as we continue to explore this important topic.


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