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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne’s multidisciplinary teams strengthen and secure America’s complex electrical grid

With 20,000 power plants, 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, 60,000 substations and 3 million miles of power line, the nation’s electrical grid is perhaps the largest and most complex machine ever assembled.

Yet its size and complexity make the grid vulnerable to major disruptions, as evidenced by the widespread power outage in the United States in 2003 – when the shutdown of a high-voltage power line in northern Ohio initiated a sequence of events that caused cascading blackouts that, within hours, affected more than 50 million Americans across eight states and the Canadian province of Ontario.

In the years since, the interdependencies among critical and lifeline infrastructure assets have only grown, and technologies for distributed energy — like solar panels and wind turbines — are becoming more prevalent. Such increasing complexity is changing how consumers and utilities interact with the grid and present a new set of challenges for our aging grid infrastructure. Addressing these challenges will be critical to maintaining reliable and secure electric power to help ensure health, safety and continued economic growth for decades to come.

At the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, scientists from multiple disciplines are leveraging their collective expertise and world-class facilities to solve these complex problems. Their efforts are helping to make the U.S. electric grid more resilient against all hazards, from natural events like hurricanes, earthquakes and winter storms, to potential cyber attacks or other acts of terrorism — while also staying adaptive to new technological changes.

Argonne is also working as key contributor in the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium, a strategic partnership between DOE and the National Laboratories to bring together leading experts, technologies and resources to collaborate on the goal of modernizing the nation’s grid. The research spans many departments at the laboratory, including Decision and Infrastructure Sciences, Energy Systems, Strategic Security Sciences, Mathematics and Computer Science, among others.

The work we do helps ensure that the grid runs reliably on a normal blue-sky’ day, as well as helps minimize impacts and speed up recovery in case of major natural or man-made events (‘gray-sky or black-sky days’),” said Guenter Conzelmann, program lead for the Advanced Grid Modeling Group in Argonne’s Center for Energy, Environmental, and Economic Systems Analysis.

According to Grid Program Manager Mark Petri, Argonne’s multidisciplinary research focuses on three primary areas: energy system resilience, critical infrastructure interdependence and emergency readiness and response, with supporting strengths (or what Petri calls differentiators”) in cyber security, applied mathematics and computing, grid modeling and simulation and energy storage.

Argonne’s scientists offer grid-related capabilities in three main areas: energy system resilience, critical infrastructure interdependence and emergency readiness and response. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Argonne is leading grid innovation with its cross-cutting approach to building resiliency into the modern power grid,” Petri said. These three key thrust areas, combined with our other unique expertise, work together to make for more resilient power grid systems and related infrastructure.”

Improving energy system resilience

Among the ways Argonne enhances the resiliency of the grid is by developing and deploying tools that model resiliency and restoration in real-time. These tools help utilities, governments and other stakeholders predict the impact of natural disasters or other disruptions on grid operations and interdependent systems, like local supply chains and data centers.

Leading Argonne-developed modeling tools include Hurricane Electric Assessment Damage Outage (HEADOUT), which estimates the likely impacts of hurricanes on the electric sector; the Electric Power Network Modeling method, called EPfast, which examines the impacts of power outages on large electric grid systems; RESTORE, an internal tool that offers insights into physical outage repair times at critical infrastructure facilities for various sponsors, and the Electric Grid Resilience Improvement Program (EGRIP), a system restoration tool that models black-start and power system restoration after a major blackout.

Argonne recently used HEADOUT during Hurricane Florence to produce twice-daily electrical outage estimates to predict the impact of the storm and project electric infrastructure restoration needs, based on National Hurricane Center Storm Advisories. These results helped many groups — the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), independent system operators, DOE — determine response actions so that first responders and utility companies could be ready when the storm hit.  

Securing the grid

As with many other modern systems, the grid has become more and more integrated with networking and computing capabilities, which support real-time control, monitoring and analysis, as well as connections to renewable energy sources and electric vehicles. This diversity of connections and communications has its advantages, but also exposes grid systems to cyber vulnerabilities that could be exploited in ever-more-sophisticated attacks.

Argonne won an R&D 100 Award for its MORE MTD defense system, which enhances cyber security by rotating multiple operating systems. Nate Evans (left) and Michael L. Thompson (right) developed the technology. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

In Argonne’s Strategic Security Sciences division, program lead for cybersecurity research Nate Evans and his team are among the leading cyber professionals working to identify and eliminate vulnerabilities within the current grid system and find new approaches to make the grid of the future more secure. One forward-thinking approach is the award-winning MORE-MTD, a proactive method for defending a computer network that could help mitigate cyber attacks. In a DOE-funded project, Evans and his collaborators are putting their approach to the test by applying MORE-MTD to secure power management units, which are important control units for energy delivery.

Preparing and responding to emergencies

The ability to respond quickly to grid failures can limit their impact and make recovery quicker and more efficient. To improve response times, Argonne directly trains system operators on how to handle major disruptions to the grid, using realistic exercise scenarios that replicate real-world response and recovery challenges. Argonne has developed and participated in led multiple drills for regional grid operators, such as the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) and Independent System Operator (ISO) for New England (ISO-NE), across the country that focus on scenarios ranging from hurricanes and blizzards to earthquakes and cyber attacks.

This shows an Argonne-developed hurricane scenario that affects electricity along the Texas and Louisiana coast. This is part of a training session for the Midcontinent Independent System Operator organization. (Simulation by Argonne National Laboratory.)

The Laboratory has also developed sophisticated threat scenarios for high-level public/private readiness exercises that enable grid resilience stakeholders to evaluate restoration and recovery decision-making for more effective emergency preparedness. During a 2018 national-level exercise coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Argonne simulated a Category 4 hurricane strike — which the Associated Press later called alarmingly similar” to the actual impact of Hurricane Florence just months later.

Understanding interdependencies

Stakeholders can better understand grid vulnerabilities, the consequences of disasters and the strategies to efficiently recover from grid disruptions by considering the grid as one of many lifeline infrastructure systems that are interdependent and required for communities to thrive. Argonne conducts all-encompassing interdependency analyses and studies to make all infrastructure more resilient – including the grid.

We don’t just look at the grid in isolation,” Conzelmann said. We understand that things can happen somewhere else that can impact the grid.” Added Petri: The biggest risk I see is the interconnectedness itself. Because of the interdependencies, you need to look at more than just a single system.”

When we consider interdependencies, the risks to resilience multiply. At the forefront of energy-related interdependencies research, Argonne is exceptionally prepared to examine the close interplay between the electric and natural gas systems. This relationship has shifted, primarily due to our increased reliance on natural gas as the preferred fuel to generate electric power. Argonne experts have collaborated with industry leaders including NERC and Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC). At a regional and national scale, the WECC and NERC studies, respectively, focused on revealing the expected impacts to grid operations given postulated disruptions in the supply and delivery of natural gas as a fuel to generate electricity.

In addition, the Argonne team has trained grid operators at MISO on gas-electric interdependencies and continues to customize the NERC’s national electric Grid Security Exercise (GridEx) V storyline to include gas industry participants. This exercise, set for November 2019, will allow grid operators and operators from various infrastructure systems to interactively play out the cross-sector impacts and response caused by gas-electric, telecommunications and water interdependencies.

Following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Argonne — in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security — provided wide-ranging recovery support for interdependent critical infrastructure systems. At the same time, another Argonne team coordinated the DOE efforts to assist Puerto Rico in planning a more resilient electric grid, accounting for vulnerabilities in telecommunications and natural gas infrastructures.

Developing the workforce

A member of the Red Team of faux cyber attackers plots his next move during the prior CyberForce Competition™. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Transitioning to the grid of the future requires an educated and prepared workforce. One of the ways Argonne is helping prepare the next generation is by leading DOE’s CyberForce Competition™, a multi-laboratory competition that draws students from across the Unites States to compete in a cyber defense scenario. CyberForce scenarios are intentionally designed around energy-related infrastructure, such as a water or energy distribution network, to help students understand their critical role in safeguarding these critical assets.

The competition, first developed at Argonne in 2016, has expanded across the DOE complex. Through events like the CyberForce Competition, we develop people who have a cybersecurity mindset and prepare them to fill the much-needed roles within the workforce,” said Evans, one of the competition co-founders.

Anticipating the next-generation energy grid

While the grid is already a complex, sophisticated system, it is becoming even more complicated as people and organizations add their own energy sources into the mix.

We’re entering a system with renewable energy sources that change and shift producers, like changing from solar to wind. We’re also entering a system where grid consumers have more choices because of these renewables,” said Pete Beckman, Argonne computing expert and co-director of the Northwestern/Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering.

Renewable sources are giving consumers more control in how they purchase power and interact with the utilities — a departure from the traditional method of distribution (where utilities were the sole providers) around which the grid was originally built.

We’re moving toward a system where we cannot control the fuels. With wind and solar, there is less operational control – the sun shines or it doesn’t, the wind blows or it doesn’t. Yet we still need to run the grid safely and securely,” said Conzelmann.

One of the ways Argonne is working to anticipate how shifts in distribution will affect future grid operation and what that will mean for managing these next-generation systems is by investing in sensors that can be added to grid systems.

We’re interested in deploying sensors and analyzing their data to understand the complex behavior of the grid,” Beckman said. If we can understand that behavior, we can get a better handle on how to manage it, isolate faults, understand losses and improve reliability.”

Living on the edge

Argonne has also developed an open source hardware and software platform, Waggle, that supports sensors and edge” computation in the field. In other words, Waggle devices co-locate high-performance computation, which can be programmed remotely, with the sensors themselves. Researchers have installed Waggle in urban areas at a large scale. For example, researchers with Chicago’s Array of Things project installed over 100 devices (growing to 200 in early 2019). Each device helps analyze images and sound, tasks that define edge computing.

Because researchers can program Waggle devices remotely, scientists can add new sensing” capabilities as needed, such as using images to detect flooding, drone activities overhead or traffic patterns.  Waggle’s edge computation also allows scientists to install high-bandwidth sensors in areas without high-bandwidth internet access.  In these cases, researchers use edge computing to analyze the data in real time, capturing specific patterns or events of interest based on this analysis or alternatively based on input from other sensors triggering” measurements.  

Argonne’s Waggle team has also partnered with Exelon to explore the use of Waggle to support field deployment and real-time analysis in the field for power quality sensors.

Will batteries unlock the grid?

Another way Argonne is preparing for the future is by investing in the development of new, faster and cheaper battery materials and technologies that could help to regulate electricity in an era of distributed production.

Today, battery technologies already play a small, but visible, role in the grid, helping to balance frequencies across the system. But behind the meter, where renewable technologies like rooftop solar panels are making inroads, batteries are not yet commonplace.

In locations popular for renewables, such as California, excess electricity generated from these sources is pumped into the grid, which can strain and overload it, undermining its reliability, said Venkat Srinivasan, director of Argonne’s Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science. Incorporating more batteries behind the meter, he argues, can help alleviate the strain and protect consumers.

There is always a chance that a grid failure will occur at some point somewhere. If I have my own source of energy storage, I have a better chance of being protected. So for homeowners and business owners, having an energy storage solution makes a lot of sense in terms of long-term reliability,” he said.

For Petri, it’s the increasing complexity of grid-related issues that drives the need for Argonne’s deep and broad multidisciplinary approach.

Argonne is very good at examining today’s systems and planning for a highly complex future,” he said. While there are unknown risks, there is also tremendous opportunity.”

By helping to keep America’s electrical grid humming, Petri and his colleagues across the laboratory are securing our nation’s energy future.

Argonne’s grid-related research is funded, in part, by DOE’s Office of Electricity, Basic Energy Sciences Program and Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.