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Department of Energy grant to improve power grid resilience for hard-hit communities

Downtown Rockford, Illinois.
Rockford, Illinois. Photo courtesy R1 Planning Council.

Washington State University researchers have received a $3 million Department of Energy grant to enhance power grid resilience for underserved communities in the face of extreme weather. 

Led by Anamika Dubey, Huie-Rogers Endowed Chair and associate professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, the researchers will work with community members to come up with solutions for when power outages occur due to extreme weather events. The proposed solutions are tailored to enhance the power grid resilience for underserved communities, which are more vulnerable to income and health-related damages that follow power outages. The project, which will be demonstrated in Rockford, Illinois, aims to help utilities better meet power needs in the communities that face the biggest challenges. 

“It’s not about restoring the grid quickly,” said Dubey, who holds a joint appointment with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “It’s more about restoring the consumers quickly and sustaining them while we are working on restoring the grid.” 

Like many communities in the Midwest, the Rockford area often suffers in summer months from powerful thunderstorms and high winds that knock out power, and these types of extreme weather events are becoming more common. 

After an extreme weather event, utilities can usually restore about 90% of an area’s power within a few days, but full restoration can take several weeks. Underserved communities, in particular, can be unequally affected by the outages, and people there have the least resources to manage in an emergency, says Dubey.

In the case of the selected focus area in the city of Rockford, the community has a high percentage of low-income, racial/ethnic minority households that have to pay a greater percentage of their income for energy costs than average for the state. For the majority of the community, the employment and high school graduation rates are also low compared to the rest of the city, and when an outage occurs, they have fewer resources to make quick adjustments. 

“We can make the power grid as resilient as we want at a very high cost, but the cost is a big factor when we look into critical infrastructure systems,” said Dubey. “Many folks do not have the resources to work with when there is an extreme event or outage. They might be struggling with general reliability challenges as well.”

As part of the project, the researchers will develop a framework to quantify and enhance the resiliency of the selected focus area in the city of Rockford, using local and distributed energy resources and distribution automation tools. The technology will include automated solar and battery-powered islands that can restore power to critical assets in an extreme event. The researchers will use predictive intelligence so that restoration schemes can be enabled automatically. These solutions will also include predicting future power outages and assisting the community stakeholders in developing a stronger disaster response strategy. 

Extreme weather events that impact the power grid are happening more often than ever, says Dubey. 

“We should have analytical tools to be able to model them, analyze them, understand and predict their impact, and plan accordingly,” she said. “In general, from a technology perspective, one of the solutions that can truly make the grid resilient is using local resources and localized solutions.”

At the same time, the researchers will be working with community partners to better understand the community’s concerns and to assess which technological solutions are truly helpful for them. 

“Resiliency means that we are able to restore the most power as soon as possible,” said Dubey. “Maybe the grid is not fully restored, but at least locally, we can support our communities. We need to provide solutions locally, and we need to provide them in a cost-effective manner. And we have the technology to be able to do that.” 

Dubey has been working on power grid resilience for the past six years. She has published several papers and developed solutions prototypes to integrate and coordinate distributed energy resources, including solar and battery storage, for resilience. By the end of the project, the researchers will implement a field demonstration of their work on a selected distribution feeder in the City of Rockford.

“We were looking for an opportunity to really deploy some of these solutions in actual communities,” she said. “Thanks to this project, now we have the opportunity to do this exactly. Although this is a difficult task, I am excited to see how the solutions will work in the real world.”

The project includes collaborations with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory as part of the Advanced Grid Institute (AGI).  Other project partners include ComEd, the electric utility provider serving more than 4 million customers in Northern Illinois, including the City of Chicago; Region 1 Planning Council, a regional government agency providing cross-jurisdictional, government-to-government collaborative planning across Northern Illinois; Open Energy Solutions (OES), working at the intersection of utility operational, computing, and telecom platforms; Eaton, an intelligent power management company; Altitude Grid, LLC, a women-owned small business in the smart grid industry; and the Western Virginia University (WVU).

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