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Article | Transportation and Power Systems

Argonne supports grid advances through pioneering energy storage and sensor research

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. Within hours, blackouts 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. The growing complexity of our energy systems 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 are using their collective expertise and world-class facilities to solve these complex problems and make the grid more secure and resilient. Among the many ways Argonne supports grid improvements is by advancing energy storage and sensory technologies.

Sensing changes in energy production and distribution  

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 Guenter Conzelmann, program lead for the Advanced Grid Modeling Group in Argonne’s Center for Energy, Environmental, and Economic Systems Analysis.

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.”

DOE has committed to investing advancements towards the grid of tomorrow through a Department-wide concerted effort called the Grid Modernization Initiative (GMI).  GMI focuses on the development and adoptions of new architectural concepts, tools, and technologies of the future grid.  Argonne is a key contributor to GMI’s portfolio and other grid efforts at DOE.

Using sensory technology to analyze grid-related activities

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.

Taping into battery technologies to support the future 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, says 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.

The increasing complexity of grid-related issues 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,” says Mark Petri, Grid Program Manager.  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; Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy; and Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response.