Skip to main content
Article | Energy Systems Division

Modernizing the Electrical Grid

Argonne develops approaches to make a smarter, more secure, and more resilient grid

Communication is a two-way street. Nowhere is this truer than between consumers and utility providers of today. The evolution of smart energy devices and off-grid energy sources increasingly provides consumers with greater knowledge and control over the electricity they use. 

New technology coupled with our growing demand for connectivity, data and reliable continuous service, puts pressure on our existing grid infrastructure. These new challenges are driving calls for our nation’s grid infrastructure to adapt to 21st century requirements. At Argonne National Laboratory, researchers are responding to the call by devising ways to integrate new technologies to better balance electricity supply and demand.

The evolution leverages Argonne’s expertise in grid modeling and simulation, along with its Smart Energy Plaza and experts, and contributes new knowledge that can make the grid smarter, more resilient, and more secure.

Integrating new technologies with the grid
One target for innovation is the communication between grid services and grid-connecting technologies, such as electric vehicle charge stations, smart meters and HVAC units. At Argonne’s EV-Smart Grid Interoperability Center, researchers operate at this axis – the point where the grid meets smart devices – to come up with better ways for managing energy resources.

Exchange of information between the grid and our smart devices can help utilities better balance energy supply and demand across the grid, predict demand more accurately and generally improve grid reliability,” according to Argonne electrical engineer Jason Harper.

Information dissemination can also help consumers make more informed decisions by providing data about energy availability and costs. They could use this information, for example, to reduce their electricity use during peak demand, when costs tend to be high. Consumers may want to schedule the charging of their electric vehicle or the time they run their dishwashers and clothes dryers during periods of low demand and low prices, and save money by doing so.

Harper and his colleagues study ways to better manage energy devices using the advanced resources inside Argonne’s Smart Energy Plaza, the smart facility where the EV-Smart Interoperability Center is housed. Equipped with solar panels, a vehicle battery pack and smart charging stations, the plaza serves as a test-bed for grid-connected technologies. It can completely detach from the main grid supply and operate as its own microgrid. This advanced capability, combined with the plaza’s state-of-the-art building controls, enable researchers to meticulously account for and visualize building and device energy demand and the energy flow among its distributed resources and the grid.

Along with using the facility to test the performance of many technologies, researchers also work to develop software that will enable more effective communications and control over them. Currently the team is developing the open-source CIP​.io platform, short for common integration platform. This platform translates the different communication protocols used by various energy devices, such as HVAC units, smart meters, charging stations, and battery packs, into a common language that can then be used to monitor and control these devices to achieve a common goal.  Examples include maintaining the plaza demand under a set power limit or optimizing energy consumption to maintain a zero net energy building.

An open source communication platform option gives flexibility and control to building managers or others operating these devices and systems,” said Harper.

Distributed resources for emergency response
Managing energy resources during emergencies is just as critical as managing resources under normal conditions. Yet disruptions to grid services caused by a hurricane or other disasters can seriously hinder people’s access to power for up to several weeks or even months.

Through a project funded by the DOE Grid Modernization Initiative, Argonne researchers are developing a software tool that will leverage resources for modernizing the grid to improve processes for restoring power. Their work targets three areas of power restoration: the use of distributed energy resources in combination with advanced grid technologies, improved damage assessment and enhanced utility crew dispatch and scheduling following a disaster.

To restore distribution following major faults to the grid, computational engineer Chen Chen and his colleagues have proposed a scheme for forming dynamic microgrids using distributed energy resources, such as back-up generators, and automating their control using advanced switching technologies. The scheme could help reduce the size and duration of outages by providing power more quickly to disaster-stricken communities.

Several steps are needed before the approach could be tested or implemented, including the development of new standards and technologies to integrate distributed generation with grid services and more wide spread adoption of distributed resources. If implemented, however, Chen says that benefits to grid resiliency can be significant.

The problem today is that there is no standard or methodology for utilizing distributed generation during disturbances or extreme events; the technology is not ready yet. But if we can implement a safe methodology for utilizing these resources, then there’s a huge potential for increasing the resiliency of the grid,” Chen said. There may also be an economic incentive for the consumer. Those owning distributed resources could sell any extra capacity they have back to their utility, and in the longer-term perhaps even directly to their neighbors.”

Data gathering for more efficient damage assessment
Another part of the tool Chen’s team is developing seeks to speed utilities’ ability to assess damage during and following a natural disaster. To assess damage, utilities traditionally rely on crews to patrol utility lines. Chen’s team are devising an additional tool for them to use, one that will integrate field and weather data as well as sensory information, from sensors deployed in the grid, smart devices, social apps where users go to report damage, or even drones.

Integrating this information together can give utilities a more accurate estimate of the location and extent of damages, and make the damage assessment process more efficient,” Chen said.

Optimizing crew dispatch and repair
Yet another part of the tool focuses on optimizing crew dispatch and repair, a process that can be extremely complex in severe weather events, when utilities often recruit outside help to hasten recovery. To make coordination and mobilization efforts more efficient, Chen’s team is developing optimization models that can help utility operators identify the most efficient ways for organizing crew members and allocating resources.

The more efficiently you use your resources, the more you’ll be able to minimize the size and duration of outages and their burden on consumers,” Chen said.

The Argonne Smart Energy Plaza is funded by DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office. The DOE Grid Modernization Initiative is funding the Argonne Power System Restoration Tool.