The U.S. power grid is almost incomprehensibly large. Comprising nearly 12,000 power plants, 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, 60,000 substations and 3 million miles of power lines, it may well be the most massive and complex machine ever assembled. Households, businesses, governments and essential infrastructure — including water, telecommunications, food supply, health care and wastewater treatment — rely on the grid around the clock. The power it generates fuels the U.S. economy.
All this complexity makes it critical to understand the vulnerabilities of the nation’s electric transmission and distribution systems and to protect the grid from an evolving set of human-caused and natural hazards. Those can include cyberattacks from foreign governments and terrorists as well as extreme weather events driven by climate change. Record-setting heat waves, unprecedented storms and flooding, historic droughts and wildfires all pose hazards to the grid.
“What sets Argonne apart is that we are very good at looking at all these problems from a multidisciplinary perspective. There are no research silos here.” — Mark Petri, head of Argonne’s Electric Power Grid Program
The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory plays a vital role in maintaining and developing a stable and secure grid. At the nation’s first national lab, located in southwest suburban Chicago, scientists and engineers bring to bear collective expertise in economics, threat assessment and mitigation, system vulnerability analysis, critical infrastructure interdependency modeling, proactive cybersecurity defense and emergency readiness and response support. The lab also leverages cutting-edge high performance computing hardware, mathematical software technologies, and artificial intelligence and machine learning resources.
“What sets Argonne apart is that we are very good at looking at all these problems from a multidisciplinary perspective,” says Mark Petri, head of the lab’s Electric Power Grid Program, who leads security and resilience activities. Petri also serves as technical team lead for the Markets, Policies & Regulations pillar of DOE’s Grid Modernization Initiative. “We bring together engineers, infrastructure analysts, computer scientists and modelers, artificial intelligence experts, economists, battery researchers and others in a focused effort to tackle these critical national challenges. There are no research silos here.”
Argonne also collaborates with local, state, regional, tribal and territorial stakeholders, as well as academia, utilities and other national laboratories. This helps Argonne develop and deploy innovative solutions and advanced technologies that enhance the grid’s ability to withstand and recover from threats. Argonne is a key contributor to the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium, a strategic partnership between DOE and the national labs to bring together leading experts, technologies and resources to collaborate on the goal of modernizing the nation’s grid.
Specialized models and training help design and defend an evolving grid
For more than two decades, Argonne has pioneered the analysis of grid infrastructure. That includes identifying natural and man-made external threats to the system — everything from hail to hackers — and honing in precisely on system vulnerabilities. “If I have flooding, high winds, ice — what are the things that are likely to break on the system?” Petri asks. “Are transmission towers going to go out? Are substations going to be under water? Am I going to lose power generation? Knowing the weak links in the chain is key.”
Researchers are also interested in deeply examining the complex interdependencies that exist between electricity infrastructure and other energy systems such as natural gas. Understanding the interconnections, the ways the systems operate in concert and how disruption in one sector has the potential to cause cascading failures across the entire complex, allows researchers to anticipate potential disruptions, manage impacts and develop adaptation measures for the future.
Argonne scientists have developed specialized computer modeling tools to enable decision makers to make informed, data-backed choices when proactively hardening the grid or responding to threats in real time. For instance, they developed one of the highest resolution climate models covering North America, which projects the impacts of climate change 50 years into the future. While most climate modeling is done at the scale of 100-kilometer grid blocks on a map, Argonne’s model behind its Climate Risk and Resilience Portal, driven by some of the nation’s most powerful supercomputers, zooms in to the level of 12 kilometers. (Argonne’s next climate models will have a resolution closer to four kilometers, which approaches the size of a large urban neighborhood or small rural town.)
“Developing the hazard and climate risk models that leverage the latest in the science and the leadership class computational resources at Argonne and DOE has enabled us to work with a multitude of private and public sector utilities” said Rao Kotamarthi, science director of the Center for Climate Resilience and Decision Science and a senior scientist at Argonne’s Environmental Science division.
Kotamarthi explained that the breakthrough offers more actionable hyperlocal information for leaders thinking through climate resiliency planning. Companies including AT&T and ComEd, as well as government agencies like the New York Power Authority, already see the model’s value. Looking to improve the resilience of their grid-level infrastructure and keep critical services up and running, they can see which pieces of valuable equipment sit in likely future climate-related danger zones. This helps them to identify locations that may need to be stabilized or relocated altogether.
Argonne has also developed several other leading modeling tools, including the Hurricane Electric Assessment Damage Outage, which forecasts likely power outages after a storm. The EPfast tool examines power outage impacts on large electric grid systems. The Restore tool provides insights into repair times for outages at critical infrastructure facilities. And the Electric Grid Resilience Improvement Program models power system restoration after a major blackout.
Moreover, to help system operators respond more quickly to grid failures, limit impacts on customers and speed recovery, Argonne supports system operator training so they can effectively respond to major grid disruptions. Stakeholders responsible for resilience are put through readiness exercises that replicate real-world threat, response and recovery scenarios — hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, cyberattacks — and hone their in-the-moment decision-making skills.
New tools predict outcomes from emergent grid resources
Adding yet another layer of complexity to the grid, distributed energy resources (DERs) like rooftop solar panels and generators have emerged as significant power generation sources. DERs contribute to a power system’s overall capacity, but operators must assess their impact and forecast their potential, especially during extreme weather events. That’s why Argonne created TDcoSim, a cutting-edge transmission and distribution co-simulation software tool that enables high-fidelity modeling of DERs. It’s the first model capable of simulating both transmission (the high-voltage network used to transfer power long distances) and distribution (the localized low-voltage network used by the utilities to deliver power to consumers).
“This is a totally new paradigm in grid modeling. Nobody has done this before,” says Vladimir Koritarov, director of the lab’s Center for Energy, Environmental and Economic Systems Analysis. “At Argonne, we specialize in developing these kinds of new, advanced grid models, algorithms, optimization methods and approaches that are more efficient, faster and more accurate than previously available ones.”
Among those models is the Argonne Low-Carbon Electricity Analysis Framework, known as A-LEAF, an integrated national-scale simulation framework for power system operations and planning. It allows operators to evaluate different pathways to decarbonization of electric grids. A related Argonne-developed interactive tool called the Geospatial Energy Mapper helps users identify sites across the country best suited for renewable energy infrastructure projects.
As the U.S. aims to meet a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the grid’s energy mix will likely include far more renewables than today. But sources such as solar and wind are variable in their production and output may be reduced in extreme weather. Adapting to this variability interests Argonne energy systems engineer Neal Mann. At a time when long-term planning decisions are being made about which energy infrastructure technologies are invested in and built, and which will be retired, Mann focuses on the role nuclear power might play in the future grid. “If we rely too much on weather-driven generation, do we end up compromising reliability under stressed climate-related conditions?” he asks. “In those cases, having nuclear and other so-called dispatchable technologies available could be the difference between widespread outages or not.”
Grid-level energy storage is focus of materials and manufacturing R&D
To compensate for the uncertainty of variable renewables and to capture excess generation, researchers across Argonne are focused on low-cost, high-efficiency energy storage. Those efforts include research into various novel battery technologies such as advanced sodium-ion cathodes and new flow cell chemistries; chemical and thermal storage; and pumped storage hydropower, a common type of hydroelectric energy storage that can provide power even during extended lulls in solar and wind generation.
One project involves the development of a model based on the R&D 100 winning EverBatt model, called “EverGrid.” The free to use model will help determine the impacts of stationary energy storage technologies such as flow batteries and advanced lead acid batteries at end-of-life, including recycling. The model will help researchers make better decisions during the technology development process as well as help find hot spots in processing that can lead to optimization and scale up.
“In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and hit U.S. climate goals, we’re going to be increasingly relying on renewable energy, which is not a constant source of energy,” says Chris Heckle, director of the Materials Manufacturing Innovation Center at Argonne. “We need to develop grid-level energy storage solutions, which will need to be large in scale. That will involve manufacturing challenges, transportation challenges and systems challenges, all of which Argonne is well positioned to meet.”
For Petri, the growing complexity of the grid and the evolving threats against it make Argonne’s interdisciplinary approach more necessary than ever to help secure the nation’s energy future.
“Our ability to understand how the grid’s complex systems behave, how they might be disrupted, and how operators can improve response is vitally important,” he says. “It’s important to people’s lives, it’s important to our economy, it’s important to our national security. And here at Argonne, we are right in the middle of improving these systems from a reliability and resilience perspective.”
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 https://energy.gov/science.