Superlab 2.0 to test US electricity grid's resilience to possible disruptions

The network will make use of 10,000 interconnected devices to test the grid for flaws and determine how to defend the system.
Jijo Malayil
An illustration of the power grid.jpg
An illustration of the power grid.

Igor Borensiko/iStock  

The electrical grid of the United States plays a critical role in the day-to-day functioning of the nation. The U.S. energy system, which is in charge of supplying the nation's energy needs and supporting its economy, is under growing stress as a result of climate change, and cyberattacks are a real possibility. 

In this context, to test its preparedness to handle next-generation challenges, the Department of Energy is spearheading a project centered around 'SuperLab 2.0,' an energy experiment that will test the grid for flaws and determine how to defend the system, while simultaneously making it greener and more efficient.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PPNL), among other national laboratories, are part of the SuperLab 2.0 network, which will conduct energy experiments with 10,000 interconnected devices to test against everything from tornadoes to terrorists. In the future, millions of linked devices might be modeled using this technology. 

"This achievement would supercharge research opportunities. Hurricanes, winter storms, wildfires, the effects of these events can be modeled, and the complexity of the experiments that could be supported would allow for national and regional analysis," said a statement from NREL. 

How complex is the Electrical Grid in the U.S.?

Thomas Edison initially exhibited the nation's first power plant at the Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan in 1882, which is when the United States' first electrical system was established. Even though the grid has grown from Edison's first fifty-nine clients to hundreds of millions of users, its fundamental design has largely stayed unchanged for many years. 

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), nuclear power generates around 20% of the nation's electricity, while fossil fuel-based power plants that burn coal, oil, or natural gas provide about 60% of it. High-voltage transmission lines are used to transport electricity over long distances, while local substations are used to reduce the high-voltage power to a lower voltage (a procedure known as "stepping down") and distribute it to adjacent residences and businesses. Currently, the system consists of 120,000 miles (190,000 km) of lines that are managed by 500 different corporations, resulting in a highly complex system. Preparedness against contingencies for such a large network is a herculean task, which can only be made possible through the use of advanced technologies that are able to transmit data without delays.

In addition, achieving the target of transitioning U.S. energy sources to become carbon-free by 2035 would require close cooperation and extensive monitoring between various smaller grids, given the unpredictable efficiency factor of greener sources like solar and wind energy.

The possibilities of the research

The Superlab 2.0 project may be able to better pinpoint solutions to issues at the local and regional levels. Extreme weather-related disruptions or cyberattacks may be included in these trials. Managers of energy systems that are implementing new technologies that rely on networked devices could find it useful to know that there are tested solutions available in case problems do develop.

Moreover, it is also a highly resource-efficient approach. "Tapping into the vast research assets that exist across the lab complex avoids the need to purchase duplicate equipment."

According to NREL, it also allows for experts in different energy technologies to manage and control the assets they know best, creating a network of research assets and technology experts unrivaled anywhere in the world to meet the nation's energy challenges head-on and drive the urgent transition to a clean energy future.

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