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.
From rolling blackouts in California during the wildfires last year to the outages in Texas this past February to the heat wave that pushed the Pacific Northwest’s grid to the limit, ensuring we have a reliable power grid is a priority for utilities and consumers alike.
For this reason, the CleanTech Alliance has been 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.
CTA: In 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.
Itron: The continuing rise in demand for electricity combined with the intermittency that comes with deeper penetration of renewables will cause utilities and cities to rethink their approach for managing the grid to ensure greater resiliency in the face of a changing grid. Additionally, the increasing number of fires and storms impacting the region is a threat to grid reliability and the safety of consumers and workers. Utilities will need to proactively implement technologies and processes to leverage renewable sources – including those at the customer level – to utilize these resources to build greater reliability into the grid.
Tacoma Power: Cyber Terrorism. Aside from obvious threats like hacking utility SCADA systems and affecting generation assets, utilities may be susceptible to general mayhem. Imagine deleting all the utility accounts, or replacing balances with random numbers over a period of weeks.
CTA: What 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.
Itron: How utilities act, prepare and recover from natural disasters is as critical as the severity of storms, which are predicted to increase in frequency and severity over time. Recently, we saw the impact of how a heat wave could impact the Northwest with rolling blackouts implemented to handle the extra demand for power along with power cables for public transportation literally melting from the heat and canceling service. Other natural weather-related events such as wildfires, severe windstorms and droughts have struck the region over the years. Utilities must take proactive steps to plan and prepare for these events in advance to better respond and quickly recover when an event does occur. By integrating technology solutions such as smart meters and distributed intelligence networks, utilities can reduce the number of outages and even the recovery time should there be a loss of power.
Tacoma Power: Volcano (Mount Rainier), Earthquake (shared with California), Tidal Wave (also shared with OR, CA), Wildfires (affecting transmission).
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.
Itron: Distributed intelligence technology platforms will assist in building greater grid resiliency whether for a natural disaster, assisting with preventive maintenance or allowing for more autonomous operation when centralized service isn’t available. This technology provides utilities with real-time data to accurately control and manage the grid. The key insights enhance visibility into storm conditions while improving the overall efficiency, reliability and safety of the grid. The real-time data pinpoints locations where there is stress on the grid and how it can be reduced to prevent outages, especially for critical locations such as hospitals.
Analytical insights are essential to understanding the flow of power across the grid. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), harnessing industrial IoT technology, provides intelligent connectivity. The smart meter network can inform utilities of outages and issues before the customer, so companies can act proactively and quickly resolve issues. For instance, analytics can assist in determining if an electrical wire is about to fail or if there is a branch that is coming in contact with it, etc. With preventative vegetation management and monitoring, utilities are less likely to experience multiple power interruptions during a storm and can be alerted to an issue even before it even occurs.
These technologies allow utilities to manage the network and power flow to enable better grid efficiency and resiliency.
Tacoma Power: Water heater controllers & Internet of Things, batteries + solar, vehicle-to-grid, on-site hydrogen generation/storage/power generation.
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.
Itron: In the coming years, battery storage will only rise in importance as more and more renewables come online. Storage can help with providing ancillary services to the grid to manage intermittency as well as providing load shifting services. As more consumers install solar, EV charging stations and batteries at their home, these devices can become a source of power for utilities if there were to be an outage or imminent issues due to peak demand. Smart meters can detect if there is a battery on the premise that can support the home or sell that power back to the grid. In this case, the load on a transformer is reduced or the consumer continues to have power regardless of a storm’s impact.
Tacoma Power: Unclear. Battery storage is helpful for short intermittent imbalances between supply and demand. Long-term energy storage in the form of hydrogen or liquid hydrogen carriers will have a much bigger impact on heavy duty vehicle transportation and longer term energy storage.
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.
Itron: Itron is working directly with utilities to provide smart metering and distributed intelligence technologies to deliver better visibility and control out to the edge level of the service area – to each consumer location. These meters can help manage the power demand to relieve and prevent overload on the transformer, a critical point as more consumers purchase and install EV charging stations at home and weather events such as heat waves occur more frequently.
Tacoma Power: Demand response pilots, considering time-of-use rates, managed EV charging, on-site hydrogen production, storage, and end-use.
Thanks again to PNNL, Itron, and Tacoma Power for answering your questions.