In 2020, wildfires have burned throughout the West; a record number of hurricanes barreled through the South; and on top of it all, there’s a global pandemic.

As society faces such complex, multi-faceted challenges, Washington State University power researchers are working to develop better tools to keep the lights on during extreme events.

Gowtham Kandaperumal, a graduate student in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), is part of a WSU team working to develop tools to quantify, assess, and visualize distribution grid resiliency and for routing utility crews for system restoration during COVID-19. Presenting at the Resilience Week 2020 symposium student competition, Kandaperumal recently received an honorable mention for his work. The symposium, sponsored by Idaho National Laboratory, was focused on transforming the resilience of critical infrastructure systems and communities.

After power outages from adverse events, such as wildfires, power grid operators may need to route crews for repairs and to bring power back to customers. The WSU researchers have been developing tools for power grid operators to monitor the grid during such extreme events and to help in decision making to minimize the impact and to ensure resilience. During COVID-19, they have to keep social distancing and COVID hotspots in mind.

“COVID-19 presents a unique problem — a human resource problem for utilities trying to send their workers into the field to perform repairs, maintenance, and other activities,” said Kandaperumal. “Since the distribution grid serves critical infrastructure that is directly tied to the health and safety of the nation and its citizens, utility workers are essential workers.”

At the student competition, Kandaperumal presented his work on supplementing the decision-making tool with an algorithm that can ensure utility workers’ occupational safety in the field. The tool considers power grid damage due to extreme events, needed repairs, crew requirements, and COVID-19 information to determine the best route the crew can take to complete the repairs while keeping themselves clear of COVID-19 hotspots.

The coronavirus is just one example of how the tool could be used to find optimal crew routing for restoration, he said. The WSU research group is also working on other projects that deal with measuring and enabling system resilience and operators’ training to deal with emergency operations.

“We can feed the tool with other relevant data sources like locations of wildfires, or inundation, to route the crew while avoiding dangerous sites,” he said. “Our solutions are driven by machine learning and guided by power engineering concepts, while closely working with our power industry partners.”

Kandaperumal is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and WSU Distinguished Graduate Research Program fellow, conducting research under Kevin Schneider, a chief engineer at PNNL and adjunct WSU professor. Kandaperumal’s research is part of the PNNL-WSU Advanced Grid Institute and was partially supported by the US Department of Energy’s Radiance and US-India Collaborative for Smart Distribution System with Storage grants. He is advised by Anurag Srivastava, associate professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science who leads WSU’s Smart Grid Demonstration and Research Investigation Lab. Co-authors on the paper also included Anshuman and Sanjeev Pannala.