NSF grant aims to enhance resilience of U.S. electricity grids

Transformers at an electric substation Credit: © iStock Images / YelantsevvAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Society depends on critical infrastructures like the electricity grid, and ensuring that the power grid is able to recover rapidly from disruptions is vital. Researchers from Penn State and the University of Washington have been awarded a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study economic mechanisms for grid resilience against extreme events and natural gas disruptions.

The three-year award is part of NSF's Critical Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Systems and Processes program (CRISP), which supports integrated research by interdisciplinary teams of engineers and social scientists to enhance resilience of critical infrastructures.

As the U.S. share of electricity generated from natural gas continues to increase, power systems and gas networks are becoming increasingly intertwined. This research will quantify the need for resilience in an electrical system that heavily relies on natural gas as fuel, and examine the economic mechanisms needed to incentivize efficient resilience investments.

"Natural disasters have profound and long-lasting consequences because of the damage that they inflict on critical infrastructure," said Chiara Lo Prete, assistant professor of energy economics and principal investigator on the project. "The electrical grid is especially sensitive to these events and has suffered more than $1.5 trillion in damage since 1980. However, because of the low frequency and high severity of major disasters, standard practice for resilience to disasters is reactive: Ignore disasters until they happen, then spend heavily to fix problems arising in the aftermath."

The researchers will first conduct stress testing to compare hardening measures and options to improve preparedness in terms of their ability to achieve resilience targets at the lowest cost. Lo Prete's research will focus on identifying combinations of market mechanisms and incentive regulations that encourage economic agents to supply the efficient mix of resilience investments.

"Resilience of a system can be enhanced by hardening its components or modifying its structure to reduce its vulnerability to a disaster," said Lo Prete. "Many options are available, but electric utilities are frequently stalled from taking action because their ability to recover costs associated with high-impact events ex post (after the fact) is limited. The results of this project will be of interest to regulators concerned with long-term investments in resilience that are effective and based on sound economic principles and regulatory practices."

The team will validate the proposed models and mechanisms on an integrated, natural gas-grid test system with realistic topology for the Northeastern United States — a region that heavily relies on natural gas for power generation — as well as on the power system of Puerto Rico, which is undergoing an almost complete rebuild after the damage caused by Hurricane Maria.

"As currently designed, wholesale electricity markets run by regional transmission organizations in the United States recognize and compensate reliability, but more work is needed to understand what can be done to enhance resilience at the lowest cost without distorting competition in restructured electricity markets. I look forward to working on this challenging problem," said Lo Prete.

The University of Washington investigators include Daniel Kirschen, professor of electrical engineering, Baosen Zhang, assistant professor of electrical engineering, and Lilo Pozzo, associate professor of chemical engineering.

Last Updated February 06, 2019