The Future of the Power Grid: Research Project

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Ulrich Munz, of Siemens Corporate Technology, describes a federally funded research project to make the US power grid more resilient and reduce the length of outages. Among other things, researchers will explore splitting the grid into several microgrids.

Ulrich Munz, principal investigator for US DOE SETO Project AURORA, Siemens Corporate Technology

Severe storms can cause massive power outages. In September 2018, Hurricane Florence cut off the power supply to hundreds of thousands of people in North Carolina for several days. Between 2017 and 2018, 25 million people in the US experienced power outages for more than one hour. Compared to the European power grid, where much of the power line infrastructure is buried underground, the power grid in the US may be more vulnerable to natural disasters due to the pervasiveness of overhead power lines. US power lines stretch over thousands of miles and sometimes to remote areas, such as densely forested mountains.

“When a tree branch touches a power line, a chain reaction can start that takes entire regions off the grid as was the case for the major power outage in the Northeastern United States in 2003,” Müenz said.

Müenz will be leading the AURORA (Autonomous and Resilient Operation of Energy Systems with Renewables) project in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Columbia University School of Engineering, and Holy Cross Energy. Over the next three years, the AURORA project team will develop a range of functions and assistance systems to make power systems in the US more resilient.

Depending on the state of the power grid, the researchers will split the grid into several microgrids to supply electrical loads either individually or collectively. Microgrids are playing an increasingly important role as power generation becomes more decentralized. Siemens has multiple microgrid controllers for this reason and has used them in several research, pilot, and commercial projects all over the world.

Power Grids

Solar power plant at Holy Cross Energy, Colorado. Photo: Siemens

Cyber attack or a branch on the line?

In the first stage of the project, Siemens is working with Columbia University to enable network operators to detect critical events faster and identify root causes. The aim is to detect power line failures due to physical incidents as well as cyber attacks on substations or control centers.

“We compare the real behavior in the power grid with its digital twin to quickly identify the cause of a malfunction,” says Müenz.

Additionally, preventive measures are investigated to prepare the power grid for predictable disruptions.

“If the connecting line to a remote town leads through a wildfire area, the town can be prepared for a failure on this line by starting local generation units, such as diesel generators,” says Müenz. Thus, power outages in remote towns can be prevented.

In the second stage, the research project will investigate maintaining the power supply after cyber attacks on the grid control center or the communications network. According to Müenz, the aim is to ensure that in the event of a control center failure, the microgrids coordinate with each other to continue supplying power to critical loads, such as hospitals. In the AURORA project, researchers from Siemens and NREL are developing new control methods for coordinating microgrids, which automatically balance the decentralized generation and load in such a way that no further failures occur.

Power restoration bottom-up approach
microgrids

Severe storms can cause power outages if trees hit power lines. Photo: Siemens

It will soon no longer take several days to restore power after a complete outage, such as the one caused by Hurricane Florence. Currently, the power grid must be manually restored by gradually connecting large conventional power plants to the grid and then connecting loads within cities and industrial plants. This can be a very time-consuming process due to human intervention and the risk mitigation processes that must be followed to protect field workers. In the AURORA project, Siemens and NREL are investigating a revolutionary bottom-up system restoration approach — restarting the grid by automatically reconfiguring and collectively stabilizing the grid after a blackout using existing decentralized generation units.

“We are developing special control functions that can make an autonomous black start within microgrids possible,” says Müenz. These control functions can be installed in smart inverters of residential solar power systems, batteries, or wind turbines.

Each research partner is contributing their unique expertise to the AURORA project:

  • Columbia University has experience in detecting cyber attacks on power grids.
  • NREL understands optimizing distributed energy resources in real-time for the reconstruction of power grids.
  • Siemens has expertise in microgrid control technology and electrical digital twins.

These innovative solutions should allow the power grid to be more resilient to cyber attacks and natural disasters while providing more autonomous restoration of electricity after power outages.

Ulrich Munz is a principal investigator for the US Department of Energy SETO ( Solar Energy Technologies Office) Project AURORA at Siemens Corporate Technology. This post originally ran on the Siemens Ingenuity blog

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