The desolate U.S. Department of Energy desert site west of Idaho Falls can be reconfigured to match the conditions of a suburban neighborhood in Maryland, or an industrial sector in Houston. Electrically, at least.
Recent upgrades to Idaho National Laboratory’s electric grid testing area allow researchers to conduct full-scale experiments on new technology, including wireless “smart grid” infrastructure.
Such devices can increase the general resiliency of power systems. Yet as glitches continue to be ironed out, they’re also capable of introducing additional, unpredictable ways for systems to fail — including via natural disasters and cyberattacks.
The flexibility allowed by INL’s recently installed infrastructure provides researchers a playground to test various combinations of devices in an effort to strengthen the grid as new technology continues to be integrated.
For DOE Smart Grid Program Manager Chris Irwin, it’s all similar to a cellphone’s operating system.
“You can migrate to the next OS, but some of your applications may stop working. That’s fine on your iPhone; it’s not quite as good on the electric grid,” he said. “Navigating that jump from legacy systems to new ones — every utility in the country will have that issue. Some of the problems are worth testing here.”
Work at the desert site is conducted using INL’s microgrid: 61 miles of transmission line and seven substations. One of the substations, abandoned years ago after nearby reactor facilities closed, is now used for grid research.
Previously, INL’s grid research was conducted with a single voltage. Recent upgrades allow simultaneous testing with three voltage lines.
Three green transformer boxes, not unlike the kind found in neighborhoods all over the country, sit in front of a trailer at the desert site. Poles in the radius surrounding the trailer now hoist old power lines, as well as two additional sets of lines running the new voltages.
Researchers can test higher voltages used by about 62 percent of the U.S., and that number will grow as antiquated technology in rural areas is replaced by the voltages used at INL, Irwin said.
Straight, one-way power lines typically seen in rural areas can be replicated at INL, as can the “mesh” network of poles more common in urban areas. The increase in voltages, as well as eastern Idaho’s weather, makes research malleable to conditions and infrastructure across the U.S.
“INL may not look like a tropical location, but it will have bitter cold in the winter, and (heat in the) summertime. We can probably find a weather, shape and voltage that will suit any locality that wants to test it out,” Irwin said.
INL’s self-contained grid allows “anomalies” to be introduced without the headache involved with conducting tests on a city’s grid.
There were four “test pads” connected to a hub in the trailer during a Tuesday demonstration. Three of the pads contained solar panels, while the fourth drew electricity, as a house or industrial building would.
Data from each piece of infrastructure was displayed on a screen in the trailer. Graphical lines flowed in different directions between the energy sources, transformers and test beds, indicating the rate of electricity as it was generated and used.
The network of lines, voltages and generation sources allows researchers to test a range of real-world scenarios.
How does a storage system affect power generation? What happens if it becomes cloudy and solar panels generate less energy and threaten an outage, or if an icy tree limb downs a line? What happens if a handful of charging electric cars suddenly spikes consumption?
“New technology is creating a lot of new, interesting problems that utilities are fighting; with this we can set all that up and model it,” INL Electrical Engineer Jason Wayment said. “A lot of really complicated things can happen, and you don’t want to test them out on a regular neighborhood because there are too many risks.”
Additionally, the installation of wireless and fiber technologies allows researchers to receive real-time test data that can be shared with INL’s Idaho Falls campus and other labs around the U.S.
The communication technologies complement the smart grid infrastructure currently in use, including meters and transformers that wirelessly and instantly provide data to utilities. Quick data sharing allows utilities to identify signs of outages before they happen.
A smarter grid also creates additional vulnerabilities for cyberattacks, however. INL’s new infrastructure allows a wider range of tests regarding the communication side of operations. Information systems can be scoured for vulnerabilities before they’re exploited by hackers.
“We have to do our homework,” Irwin said. “The power system’s biggest enemies are squirrels and trees. On the communications side, there’s corruption — having someone else interfere. We can simulate a bad day where a tree falls on a cell tower, but we can also simulate a cyberattack.”
INL’s new capabilities are expected to draw partner interest from utilities and technology developers. The full-scale testing conducted at the site functions as the bridge between computer simulations and practical implementation of new gadgets.
With an increasing reliance on digital technology, grid research is becoming more vital each year, Irwin said.
“Fifty years ago the loss of electricity was an inconvenience, but the cash registers were mechanical and everything worked fine,” he said. “Now, in the absence of electricity we really don’t function as a modern society. With new forms of refrigeration and electric check stands, everything comes to a standstill. We need something a lot more reliable than the old systems.”
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.