Utah researchers are at the forefront of protecting the grid from climate change
Utah researchers are spearheading efforts to explore how to make the Mountain West’s power grid more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
The joint University of Utah-University of Calgary U.S.-Canada Center on Climate-Resilient Western Interconnected Grid aims to explore ways to better protect the grid in western North America against radical weather events like heat waves, wildfires and cold snaps.
“These extreme weather events just happen more frequently,” said Masood Parvania, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah and co-lead of the project. “And when they happen, they are more intense and they last longer.”
Western North America contains a 136,000-mile network of power lines, and the $9 million in funding from both the U.S. and Canadian governments will help the center research and develop tools for the power industry to implement in the coming years.
“The grid originally is very robust but is not designed for some of these [extreme] temperatures,” said Parvania. “Given the growing issues with wildfire, heat waves and all this, we need to make sure that the grid, as it is, needs to be more resilient and needs to become more resilient to still continue delivering power to us.”
Part of that resiliency, said Parvania, will include a database of climate models power companies can use to better understand how to protect their infrastructure.
With extreme weather events only becoming more common due to climate change, the need to protect the region’s power infrastructure is becoming more important.
In Texas, extreme cold caused widespread blackouts and a near-collapse of the state’s power grid in 2021. Those outages were blamed on a failure to properly winterize the state’s power infrastructure.
“You have to shore up the grid,” said Brigham Young University electrical and computer engineering professor Stephen Schultz. “Otherwise, when one piece goes down, huge chunks of people lose power rather than if you fortify the grid, only small sections of people lose power.”
Take heat waves. Extreme heat can cause undue stress on power grids because of the demand for electricity and the fact that power lines become less efficient the hotter they get.
“Everybody's running the AC [during a heat wave],” said Parvania. “The AC is full-time all day and that is increasing the demand. Then on the other side, that is also limiting the capability of the transmission lines to deliver the power because they are too heated because of the temperature.”
Limiting the stress the system feels in an extreme weather event can also reduce the chances of blackouts, which happen when the grid can’t respond fast enough to surges in power demands.
“When a line goes down, [power companies] reroute power in fractions of a second,” added Schultz. “So when your light flickers, that usually means that some line went down and they rerouted power before people even realized it. There's a lot of cool automation and control in the grid these days, but you have to make sure that you can reroute enough power, enough current on a line to be able to do that.”
The center hopes to create more tools the industry can use in the next one to two years and will be building on work that has already been done by researchers around the West.
“We are not starting from scratch,” said Parvania. “This team that has come together already has a lot of background and prior working on this idea.”