Power lines

Increasing resilience in our evolving energy grid: A human-centric issue

America’s power grid is increasingly threatened by both human-driven attacks and natural disasters. Technology can help increase resilience … but only when implemented in tandem with the people who use it.

By Ryan Ernstes. Mentored and edited by JoAnna Wendel.

California wildfires. Cyber attacks by foreign entities. Freezing temperatures that left 11 million Texans without electricity. Whether caused by natural events like hurricanes or wildfires, or human caused events like malicious cyber attacks, large scale threats to our electrical grid are becoming more common.

At times, a disrupted power supply has devastating consequences for Americans. In the Pacific Northwest’s 2021 heat wave, rolling blackouts contributed to the deaths of more than 500 people. When the grid went down in Texas last February, as many as 700 individuals perished. In addition to loss of life, power grid disruptions also threaten economic loss or even national security breaches.

Last month, three energy experts addressed threats to the electrical grid at the virtual annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The panelists focused on resilience (or a community’s ability to respond to disturbances in the system), noting that a resilient electric grid is not purely based on technology; it’s a concept inherently interconnected with the people who consume power.

Stated simply, the grid is our continent-wide network of infrastructure that generates, transforms, and transports energy to where it’s needed. The grid comprises power generators (hydroelectric dams, coal and fossil fueled power plants, solar panels); transmission substations (which convert energy to the needed voltage); a distribution network (poles and power lines); and end users (homes, commercial buildings, and industrial areas). This massive network that enables us to live with daily, instantaneous power is considered the world’s largest machine. This machine is increasingly under threat from both natural and human caused events.

Resilience is “having a contingency plan when things go wrong,” said Varun Rai, one of the panelists and head of the Energy Systems Transformation Research Group at the University of Texas in Austin. Shocks to the system are to be expected, and resiliency reflects how well the system responds to such disturbances.

How we make the grid more resilient is highly dependent upon geography and the particular threats a regional grid faces, said fellow panelist Jean-Paul Watson, Senior Research Scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Areas prone to hurricanes, for example, would benefit from stronger power poles that can withstand high force winds or transmission equipment that can detect floods and shut down to prevent further damage. Meanwhile, cyberattacks could be reduced through enhanced cybersecurity technology that can help to detect and prevent hacking in the system.

Another hot topic in grid resilience is electrification, the process of replacing fossil fuels with technologies that use electricity as a source of energy. By shifting the grid to ‘clean’ energies like wind and solar, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and the built environment and help reduce the onslaught of climate-driven grid failures. “Rapid electrification is both expected and needed,” Rai said.

Rai also notes that as both physical and cyber-oriented disruptions to our grid are expected to increase, our ability to respond to these disruptions are currently very different between wealthier communities and those who are less economically privileged.

Alyona Teyber, another panelist and an engineer at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, offered as an example the newer technology two-way charging, which would allow electric vehicle (EV) owners to power their homes off of their vehicle batteries in the event of an outage.

“How does a renter community, who probably can't afford an electric vehicle (EV), benefit from two-way charging and plugging into your house in the event of a power outage?” she said.

Despite the gaps in existing research and challenges that lie ahead, space remains for optimism and hope. Rai said that funding for this type of work is picking up. He is hopeful that long term deep innovation is coming.

And according to Teyber, scientists are now recognizing this important social component to addressing grid resiliency. “It’s exciting that we’re having these conversations to begin with,” she says. “It’s bringing awareness to people beyond the scientific community.”

Ryan Ernstes is a freelance writer covering the environment, society, and justice issues. She also uses the media of film and photography to explore these issues, especially through the lens of outdoor recreation. In her spare time, you might find Ryan climbing, skiing, running, or cuddling with a four-legged family member

Photo: Power lines make up just one component in our continent-wide network of infrastructure that generates, transforms, and transports energy where it's needed. Courtesy of Ready.gov.

March 29, 2022

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