Caltech research on ‘smart grid’ explores how 100% green energy can meet growing demand

Edward Petterson

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The record-breaking heatwave that hit California this month has put an unprecedented strain on the state’s power grid. The balancing act of leaving the lights and air conditioning on when the temperature is in the triple digits also gave a glimpse of the future, because climate change and the switch to renewable energies require consumers to use electricity more flexibly.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena are at the forefront of trying to solve this conundrum: how can an electrical grid fed by unpredictable solar and wind power meet the state’s future demands as more extreme heat waves and a simultaneous zero-to-zero transition occur -Emission vehicles only mean more power requirements? The solution they’re working on is a decentralized “smart grid” that uses mathematical models to optimize power distribution and consumption based on when and where it’s available and needed most.

“The transition to clean and sustainable energy is huge and involves many different aspects,” said Steven Low, professor of computer and mathematical sciences and electrical engineering at Caltech, whose research includes electric vehicle charging and smart grid infrastructure. “These extreme weather events will contribute to challenges during this transition.”

California is spending billions of dollars to ensure the state’s power grid can withstand increased demand from heat waves in the years to come and to diversify the state’s clean energy portfolio, particularly through long-term storage and offshore wind.

“These technologies complement our abundant solar resources by providing power at the end of the day and into the evening when the sun goes down,” a spokesman for the California Energy Commission said in an email.

The idea of ​​a smart grid has been around since at least the US Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which called for “increased use of digital information and control technologies to improve the reliability, security, and efficiency of the electrical grid.” But California’s goal of having 100% renewable energy by 2045 increases the urgency of implementing new technologies to keep the grid stable and demand-supply balanced when powered by solar and wind power.

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Research at Caltech focuses on many aspects of sustainable energy. Chemical engineers are working on fuel cells and energy storage – new types of batteries and new types of materials to make batteries with drastically longer lifespans and also higher capacities.

When the sun goes down and people start coming home, there’s a quick disconnect between available renewable energy and consumer demand. During the recent heat wave, Californians were urged to turn their air conditioner thermostats higher in the evenings and not use large appliances to prevent blackouts. Stored energy can fill some of that gap, and the California Independent Systems Operator, which oversees the power grid, cited the more than 3,000 megawatts of battery storage that has come online in the past two years as one of the reasons why outages have been recent heat wave was avoided.

“In Southern California, we have a lot of sun and wind,” said Marvin Moon, assistant general manager for electrical services at the Pasadena Department of Water and Energy, which works with Caltech to implement new technologies. “The challenge is energy storage, which is 15 years behind solar technology.”

California will need much more battery storage and it’s unclear if the currently used stationary lithium-ion batteries will suffice, especially at a system-wide level, Low said, so new long-term storage solutions need to be found.

A second, perhaps more esoteric question is how to stabilize the grid when powered by inherently unstable sources such as wind and sunshine.

In traditional power generation, the huge rotating turbines in natural gas or nuclear power plants form the basis for the stability of the entire power grid, e.g. B. Keeping the voltage within certain parameters, from the transmission grid to the distribution grid. And on the generation side, the power grid has traditionally been managed to meet expected demand.

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As these traditional power plants are decommissioned and replaced by wind and solar farms, the challenge is to keep voltage levels within their parameters and maintain safety and integrity across the network as supply fluctuates.

“How do you feel about maintaining stability without that inertia?” Said low. “This is one of the biggest stability challenges that research is actively working on.”

And as the grid becomes less secure and controllable on the generation side, control must shift to other points within the transmission and distribution side, e.g. B. at transformers and substations, where new monitoring and control devices can be installed to keep the network stable.

“These are all control and optimization opportunities within the network, where new hardware, software and algorithms can be developed to achieve much more active, real-time and dynamic control of the system,” Low said. “This allows us to integrate more renewables.”

Peter Klauer, senior adviser on smart grid technology at the California Independent System Operator, agrees that better information is key to the network’s reliability as it moves away from traditional power sources.

“We need more, faster and more accurate information about what’s happening on the Internet,” said Klauer. “It’s becoming more dynamic and more difficult to predict.”

One of the new challenges for the ISO is that many homes have started using their own solar panels to generate electricity, and the real-time data the grid operator gets from the utilities, for example on the impact of those rooftop panels on demand, is still imperfect, Klauer said .

Another key change in the clean energy transition is that demand must be managed more flexibly, responsively and actively through interactive technology. This can be done through smart devices that can communicate with the grid to determine when the dishwasher is running at its best or when the thermostat needs to be adjusted. It can also extend to commercial and industrial users, such as data centers, to determine when it’s optimal to perform specific tasks that require a lot of power.

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A particular challenge for California will be that by 2035 the state will only allow zero-emission cars to be sold, meaning millions more electric vehicles will need to be charged, putting an additional strain on the grid.

To address this problem, Low and a group of researchers at Caltech have developed an adaptive charging network where EV owners can use a mobile app to tell a garage that is part of the network how much power they need and for how long you want to park. The workshop will use an algorithm to decide when to charge each EV in a way that is optimal for the entire system, minimizing costs to the network.

According to Low, large-scale adoption of such smart charging systems, particularly in workplace parking garages, will allow California to house 10 million electric vehicles that take advantage of the abundance of solar energy during the day.

Other researchers around the world are also looking at the future of the power grid and the challenges associated with the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and the need to cope with the growing number of electric vehicles.

For example, Rajit Gadh, the director of UCLA’s Smart Grid Energy Research Center, said in an interview with a university publication this month that some of the newer electric vehicles on the market have the ability to feed electricity into the grid, if any, at the moment 1 million EVs on the streets of California were equipped with this capability and financially incentivized, the combined battery resources of those EVs would be able to provide backup support during peak periods on extremely hot days when energy is at its greatest to provide the network required.

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