Knowledge is Power: Argonne scientists work to re-invent a "smart" electrical grid

By Jared SagoffOctober 1, 2009

America's power grid system today faces the same kinds of challenges that the country's communication system did in the 20th century. Just as e-mail and telecommunications fundamentally changed how we interact, new technologies for creating, storing and using energy require scientists to find more efficient ways to transmit and distribute it.

In the 127 years since Thomas Edison opened the first commercial power plant, America's electric infrastructure has evolved in ways its designers never anticipated. "Our demand for energy has changed much in the past 50 years, but the ways in which we supply and distribute it really have not," said Mark Petri, Argonne's technology development director. "The power grid that we have now served its original purpose admirably, but we need to adopt a new approach and new technologies to solve today's challenges and increasing energy demands."

Electric vehicles represent a paradigm shift to zero-emission transportation, but millions of such vehicles would increase electrical demand beyond the capacity of today's power grid.

Argonne scientists have begun to use the laboratory's computer modeling capabilities to build more comprehensive simulations of electricity generation, distribution and consumption, but they face several challenges. First, although the benefits of new and clean power sources like wind and solar energy are easy to understand, their intermittent nature makes it hard to route power where and when it is needed because they may not be producing electricity at a given moment. 

Another challenge lies in the country's transportation system, which has relied on fossil fuels for more than a century. The threat of global climate change has prompted scientists to search for ways to replace fossil fuels with electricity. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles represent a paradigm shift to zero-emission transportation, but millions of such vehicles would increase electrical demand beyond the capacity of today's power grid. At the same time, these vehicles hold the potential to feed electricity back into the grid during periods of peak demand. Argonne research seeks to efficiently incorporate and evaluate this new way of sharing power.

Finally, effective modeling must integrate the vulnerabilities of the nation's electrical grid, which increase as the grid grows and evolves.  The grid makes an attractive target for terrorists or other malefactors who might seek to throw the country's infrastructure into chaos; moreover, a larger, more complex grid system could complicate our ability to anticipate and respond to natural disruptions such as severe weather.  The creation of an ideal national power grid – one that is simultaneously more efficient and more secure – requires significant innovation in the way we transmit electricity and monitor its use.

Fortunately, Argonne employs a cadre of scientists and engineers who devote their extensive expertise to creating a smarter grid.  "By including industrial partners in our effort to remake the grid," Petri said, "we could actually achieve the cost savings and environmental benefits that our models predict." 

Argonne and its partners have identified the need for new methods to simulate the national power grid by modeling the creation and flow of electric power as well its connection to other critical infrastructures, such as transportation, gas, water and communications.  Through detailed simulations of how electric power is supplied and transferred around the country, researchers can bolster not only the grid's security but also its reliability, efficiency and resiliency.