WASHINGTON, May 3, 2016 - When you switch on your coffee maker in the morning, you connect not only with instant power but with the world’s largest machine, the nation’s electric grid. To keep this delivery system reliable, affordable and cyber-secure, Congress and the Obama administration are hard at work on modernizing the grid to match curtailed demand and increasingly diverse energy sources.

As part of this work, Energy Department officials will hear perspectives on how to redesign the grid at a series of public meetings. The next Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) stakeholder meetings are on May 6 in Des Moines, Iowa; May 9 in Austin, Texas; May 10 in Los Angeles, Calif.; and May 24 in Atlanta, GA.

Meanwhile congressional negotiations continue with the aim of merging separate House and Senate energy bills. One relatively non-controversial area covered in both bills is modernizing the grid to improve reliability and incorporate new renewable energy sources including, wind, solar and hydropower. Bipartisan support for upgrading the grid appears solid despite the administration’s call for spending an extra $15 billion in federal funds on the effort. Faced with this price tag, Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has acknowledged that “advancing our energy infrastructure will require some federal funding even within our constrained budgets.”

The Senate’s Energy Policy Modernization Act (S. 2012) passed in April calls for a number of grid-based objectives. They include  “maximizing the cost-effectiveness of future grid-related investments . . . the development of physical and cybersecurity plans to take appropriate measures to protect and secure the electric grid . . . advanced monitoring and control of the advanced electric grid . . . improved integration of distributed energy to ensure that electric utilities remain financially viable (and that they) make the needed investments that ensure a reliable, secure, and resilient grid; and costs incurred to transform to an integrated grid are allocated and recovered responsibly, efficiently, and equitably.”  

Similarly, the House’s North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act (H.R. 8) passed last December supports modernization of the grid “to enable a robust multi-directional power flow that leverages centralized energy resources and distributed energy resources, enables robust retail transactions, and facilitates the alignment of business and regulatory models to achieve a grid that optimizes the entire electric delivery system.”

Just how challenging it will be to deliver the upgrades called for by Congress and the administration’s initial Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) recommendations is clear from an April report from the National Academies of Sciences on “Analytic Research Foundations for the Next-Generation Electric Grid.” The report explains that re-building the grid will “require new mathematical capabilities” in order to manage “hundreds of thousands of components and their complex interaction affecting the performance of the entire grid.”

The report says that as more intermittent wind and solar power generation is added, the problems involved in managing the increasingly complex grid cannot be solved with current technology. “In order to design, monitor, analyze, and control such a system,” it says, “advanced mathematical capabilities must be developed to ensure optimal operation and robustness.” It concludes that “the future grid will rely on integrating advanced computation and massive data.”

With the grid already experiencing new stresses including climate change and a more diverse mix of energy sources, the report warns “the power industry is not making sufficient use of the data available to it” and that despite the clear need, “the power industry hires very few data scientists.”

The NAS report also lists some of the key changes that are forcing grid modernization, including “cyber technologies (that) are maturing and are becoming available at reasonable cost . . . emergence of qualitatively new resources, such as renewable distributed energy resources . . . large-scale storage . . . increased use of flexible ac transmission system (FACTS) technologies . . . increased use of high-voltage direct current (HVDC) lines . . . environmental objectives for reducing pollutants . . . industry reorganization, from fully regulated to service-oriented markets.”

One specific advance is that the 2009 Recovery and Reinvestment Act funded the installation of some 2,000 phasor measurement units that sample grid electricity 30 to 60 times per second to provide “an unprecedented stream of data.” Unfortunately, the data’s full value will remain untapped until the new mathematical, algorithm, machine learning, and automated controller capabilities called for in the NAS report are developed. The next step in that direction may have to wait until the House and Senate merge their separate energy bills.



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