The challenges of keeping the power on

High-voltage power lines at sunset
Power lines transporting electricity to the Palouse.

It was a hot August day in 1996 when a power line in Western Oregon sagged slowly in the late afternoon heat, eventually touching an underlying filbert tree and shorting out. 

Six minutes later, 13 turbines on a Columbia River dam came to a stop. A cascade of failures followed, and the power outage spread across the West, affecting a total of 7.5 million people in eight states, Canada, and Mexico for up to six hours.

The reason that it happened came down to a weather forecast that was off by just a few degrees, said Mani Venkatasubramanian, Boeing Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering at WSU, and a leading researcher in power system dynamics and stability in power systems. 

“We didn’t have adequate support for the system,” he said.

In the 25 years since, numerous measures have been put in place to prevent blackouts, but this summer as well as future years present increasing challenges for power grid operators. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation recently warned that parts of the U.S. and North America are at heightened risk for power outages because of expected warm temperatures, drought conditions, low snowpack, and wildfires in the Western U.S. Power system outages due to natural disasters cost $18 to $33 billion per year and cause significant safety and security concerns. WSU researchers are working to address the challenges and build resiliency into the power grid.

“If we don’t have adequate support and reserves, then there is a danger that a small problem can cascade into a major issue, causing a widespread blackout,” said Venkatasubramanian who serves as the director of Energy Systems Innovation Center at WSU. “Climate change is certainly making it worse with increased wildfires and severe events. We used to call these rare events, but I don’t know that we should consider them rare events with the way the world is changing. Utilities have started planning for them.”

Power grid operators are also dealing with a changing energy outlook due to the war in Ukraine as well as trying to rapidly introduce energy sources from renewables. And the industry is seeing a shortage in the number of power engineers and field technicians, which can create challenges in fixing problems when they do occur. 

Anamika Dubey, Huie-Rogers Endowed Chair in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at WSU, is developing plans for managing disruptions and improving the resilience of power distribution systems as part of a National Science Foundation Career Award that she received in 2020. The proposed innovations add flexibility for bottom-up restoration using distributed energy resources and enhanced automation capabilities, allowing for faster recovery of critical services during natural disasters. She is developing mathematical models to adequately measure risks and then developing solutions to reduce those risks. 

“How can we include some of these new generation technologies to save our critical assets, and how do we justify them from a cost and value perspective,” she said. “This is called hardening of the system.”

Researchers also are working to understand how to maintain resilience in the face of rapid introduction of renewables to the power grid. 

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Venkatasubramanian. “The transition to renewables is certainly making the generation side of the picture more intermittent and more uncertain. The challenge as we look to the future is how can we make the grid operate with less dependence on the backup generation, and how can we make the grid equally reliable and resilient with just renewable-based generation?”

The researchers are working to create non-traditional ways of operation that can serve the community during extreme events, Dubey said. So, for instance, micro-grids are small sections of the power grid that have their own generation. They can either operate on their own or in connection with the external power grid. 

“They require new solutions, approaches, models, and automation strategies that we need to look into,” said Dubey. “A lot of work that we do here is in how we develop solutions so that these new types of microgrids that we want are able to function in a stable and reliable manner when they’re called for.”

“When we look into the future in terms of sustainable energy sources, it is fundamentally tied to the power grid.”

Mani Venkatasubramanian
Boeing Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering

WSU along with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will host the Advanced Grid Institute Industry Day on Aug. 31. The event, which is free and open to the public, will include professionals from state and federal agencies, utilities, industry, national laboratories, and academia, discussing advances and opportunities in meeting national clean energy goals.

The common thread as researchers look to decarbonize society, whether through hydrogen, nuclear, wind, or solar, is the power grid, says Venkatasubramanian.

“When we look into the future in terms of sustainable energy sources, it is fundamentally tied to the power grid, which means all the energy demands in the future will have to be met by growing or scaling up the power grid,” he said. “What an exciting future lies ahead for us as power engineers. I think we hold the key for solving the grand energy challenges for the society.”

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