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New electric grid test bed can help industry, government secure electric generation

Posted to Idaho National Laboratory in the Grid Professionals Group
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Cory Hatch's picture
Cory Hatch 1699
Senior Science Writer Idaho National Laboratory

Cory Hatch is an award-winning science writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications including U.S. News and World Report, MSNBC.com, the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Jackson Hole...

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  • Mar 30, 2022
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2022-03 - Investing in the Grid 2022, click here for more

In the past decade, cybercriminals and nations hostile to U.S. interests have developed increasingly sophisticated ways to attack electricity distribution infrastructure.

Likewise, increasing electric vehicle use and renewable energy generation pose new challenges for managing loads on the electric grid.

In the United States, researchers at private companies and the Department of Energy’s national laboratories are developing new technologies to overcome these challenges.

At Idaho National Laboratory, for instance, researchers are testing devices that could soon block cyberattacks from important grid infrastructure, and computer programs that could guide electrical vehicle charging to off-peak hours when electricity is cheapest.  

But before utility companies implement these technologies, they will need assurances that the devices and software will work as advertised, with full-scale grid infrastructure and under real-world operating conditions.

Now, researchers at Idaho National Laboratory have developed a full-scale electric power grid test bed for evaluation of new grid technologies.

A test grid with the same equipment and capabilities

The grid is outfitted with the same modern equipment, transmission and distribution capabilities that utilities use on the nation’s electric grid.

The full-scale test grid allows government researchers and private industry to develop, test and demonstrate technologies that improve grid security and resiliency without worrying about the consequences – including blackouts or equipment damage – that might occur if these tests were conducted on the actual electric grid. 

Researchers began grid tests at the INL Site starting around 2003, including some of the first tests showing how physical grid equipment could be vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Even though INL owns and operates the grid at the Site, conducting these types of tests was difficult and required a lot of time and effort to prepare, said Grayson West, a senior power systems researcher at INL.

“That grid feeds some critical loads, like the Advanced Test Reactor,” he said. “We had to coordinate long power outages.”

The Department of Energy started funding improvements to the test grid in 2016 by creating an interconnected network that mimics distribution networks (15 to 35 kilovolts) found on the larger electric grid.

The upgrades included buildings, substations and test pads that would support more and larger experiments as well as a fiber optic network for communications between test pads that could be used for test control or data collection between the facilities.

In 2019, INL began improvements to the test grid, including the addition of another transmission line interconnect that would segment and isolate the test grid from the rest of the Site’s grid infrastructure. “The modification allows us to do more high-risk testing at the transmission level (69-138 KV) and above,” West said.

Today, the test grid includes 32 miles of reconfigurable distribution line, 16 miles of transmission line, and transformers capable of supporting demonstrations at 15, 25 and 35 kilovolts. 

The test bed includes four 2,500-square-foot research pads designed to house large pieces of equipment for conducting power load testing, smart grid assessments and energy storage experiments. 

The entire system is operated at an on-site command center that uses state-of-the-art control systems and real-time power management equipment. The command center can isolate sections of the test grid for specific high-risk demonstrations. An additional 40,000-square-foot test pad and equipment storage building will be completed in 2022. 

“Now it’s easier for us to set up for long-term, endurance-type tests or test-to-destruction types of activities that don’t put other resources at risk,” West said. “Having the test grid separated from the main INL Site grid means that the testing that we conduct won’t impact the reactor systems or other critical facilities.”

Unprecedented flexibility

The setup also allows the researchers an unprecedented level of flexibility to conduct many types of experiments and demonstrations, said Carol Reid, program manager for INL’s power systems research group.

“We can set up equipment to do a variety of tests in a variety of configurations – renewable energy sources at one test pad, a control system and substation equipment at another test pad,” she said. “We can also do a variety of types of tests – cybersecurity for control and protection systems, cyber-related vulnerability research, and power quality studies. We can determine how the system responds to the various devices we’re testing. It gives us a lot of freedom.”

Informing and validating computer models

Aside from tests of real-world grid equipment, the full-scale electric power grid test bed serves another vital function: informing and validating computer models.

The new, updated test grid is an important and necessary addition to INL’s formidable grid modeling capabilities, said Andy Bochman, INL’s senior grid strategist.

“Grid operators and managers rely heavily on models to do their jobs,” he said. “Models and simulations can give us some really good information, but they are never a perfect stand-in for physics-based reality and real-world conditions.”

The new INL test bed allows experts to gauge whether models accurately predict what actually happens in the wires and grid equipment.

“If the real-world observations match what the models predict, that allows users to have extra confidence in a model’s accuracy,” Bochman said. “Where there’s a divergence between what the model predicts and what’s observed on the test grid, that allows us to further improve the models.”

A device might be tested on INL’s Real Time Digital Simulators, grid modeling systems that can integrate real-world hardware. Then, after modeling and simulation, the device’s performance can be verified on the full-scale test grid.

“These types of tests boost the confidence of the organization that is going to purchase and install these devices,” said Dan Elmore, director of INL’s Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Program. “Sometimes seeing is believing.”

Aside from cybersecurity, the test bed is going to help validate technologies that will be used to transition the grid from fossil fuel-based power generation to renewables.

“The move toward a carbon-free grid is going to entail more renewable sources like wind and solar, which will mean overcoming load balancing issues and other challenges,” Elmore said. “Models will handle a lot of it, but there will be times when you will need to validate a particular device or a particular grid management scheme at scale.”

Utilities are hard pressed to conduct these kinds of real-world tests, especially of cybersecurity equipment. Simulating a cyberattack on an electrical grid in say, downtown Boston, might cause a blackout or, at minimum, a regulatory nightmare.

“Here you can actually try it,” Bochman said. “INL’s test bed is an electrical grid playground. However it plays out on the test bed, that’s probably a reality.”

Idaho National Laboratory
Part of the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s complex of national laboratories, INL performs work in each of the strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science & environment. INL is the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research & development.
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 30, 2022

At Idaho National Laboratory, for instance, researchers are testing devices that could soon block cyberattacks from important grid infrastructure, and computer programs that could guide electrical vehicle charging to off-peak hours when electricity is cheapest

Either one of those issues is critical and massive enough to warrant all our attention and focus, but clearly we don't have time to put either to the side. Some really exciting stuff going on these days in the energy industry!

Christopher Neely's picture
Christopher Neely on Apr 1, 2022

So, a test dummy for large-scale grid innovations: this is genius though a little surprising we didn't already have something like this. Investing in a testbed for the electrical grid is proof enough of how serious and front and center grid security and innovation will be in the next generation. 

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