Modeling natural disasters to strengthen power grids

A simulation tool for utility companies developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory helps identify options to shore up power grids to prevent storm-caused outages. (Michael G. Seamans/The Central Maine Morning
Russell Bent

It’s 6:42 p.m. and the lights go out, while hurricane winds lash the trees overhead. After two days without power, cellphones no longer have any battery and, even if they do, there is no service because cell towers are down. After three days, food in the fridge is going bad. Nearby restaurants and grocery stores are closed. It’s easy to see how prolonged power outages can quickly become a serious problem.

Over the past 13 years, more than 20 major hurricanes and snowstorms struck electric power grids and triggered outages across the United States. Every blackout left hundreds of thousands of people in the dark for several days. These power cuts disrupted daily life, threatened peoples’ safety and wellbeing, and caused millions of dollars in economic losses.

For example, Hurricane Harvey left more than 200,000 people in southeast Texas without power for days. Prolonged blackouts are more than just an inconvenience – they are dangerous. Hospitals cannot operate fully, utilities such as sewage and water struggle, and telecommunications can go down.

So how can we minimize the impacts of power disruptions and keep the lights on when extreme natural hazards happen? Part of the answer may lie in computer models that simulate the impact of hazards on power grids, and recommend specific upgrades that electric utility companies can implement to strengthen and protect their grids from potential future damage.

To address the need to reinforce power grids, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a simulation tool for utility companies. This research was funded by the Smart Grid R&D program within the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Electricity (OE). It is one of more than 80 projects in the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium funded by the Department of Energy. The agency is investing in those projects to spur the research and development of computer tools that can support resiliency of power distribution systems in the U.S.

The tool simulates how storm surges and wind from a hurricane can damage various components of a grid’s infrastructure, such as electrical substations, and proposes the best combination of cost-effective options a utility could pursue to shore-up its grid.

Those options could include simple solutions, such as adding guy wires to reinforce power poles from gusty winds, using generators to provide backup power, building protective walls around substations, and taking above-ground powerlines and burying them underground.

Identifying the best combination of solutions involves combing through hundreds of choices, which is arduous and time-consuming. But to execute that task quickly and efficiently, Los Alamos brings to bear an advanced optimization approach.

This approach uses a computer to efficiently search through the possible combinations of choices. Scientists deconstruct the problem into multiple smaller problems that are easier to solve, and then combine these solutions to recommend a course of action.

The Los Alamos-created tool scans through numerous upgrade possibilities, measures the benefit of each combination of possibilities, and then spits out the best solutions – a process that is much faster.

The team is now testing its simulation tool with its partner, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents more than 900 not-for-profit electric utilities in the country, serving more than 40 million people. The utilities can tap into an online platform to analyze their grids and review the recommendations. That can help utilities strategically invest in the most effective upgrades to keep providing power to homes and businesses when natural hazards strike.

It’s crucial to strengthen our power grids now to protect them from future natural disasters. To that end, the lab is looking to expand the use of its simulation tool to benefit other utilities and help mitigate the impact of power cuts, so the next time there’s a hurricane or other natural disaster, staying home will be the safest place to be.

Russell Bent is a scientist in the Applied Mathematics and Plasma Physics group at Los Alamos National Laboratory.


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