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Shoring up the West’s grid against extreme weather

Utah engineers and scientists to lead international center supporting climate resilience for 136,000-mile network of power lines.

The West’s electrical grid is a 136,000-mile patchwork of transmission lines connecting two Canadian provinces, 11 Western states and pieces of three others, serving 80 million people.

While it drives a vital and growing piece of the U.S. economy, this fragile network remains vulnerable to increasingly extreme weather and wildfire risks, according to Masood Parvania, an associate professor of electrical and computing engineering at the University of Utah’s John and Marcia Price College of Engineering.

“These extreme weather events are not the way they used to be in the past. They are more frequent, so we get more of them, and they are more intense” said Parvania, who will co-lead the newly established U.S.-Canada Center on Climate-Resilient Western Interconnected Grid. “Heatwaves have become a normal part of our lives. They last longer and we record higher temperature every year.”

This new interdisciplinary center is aimed at fortifying the region’s power infrastructure against the floods, high winds, drought, even cold snaps that are also taking a heavier toll on the West’s energy systems. This vulnerability poses significant challenges to maintaining essential services, from health care to transportation and communication.

The international effort has secured nearly $9 million in federal grants from the U.S. and Canadian governments to explore ways to shore up the grid, known as the Western Interconnection, in the face of growing threats associated with global warming.

“Our standard of living depends on power systems, but we only realize that when we don’t have power,” Parvania said. “We want to avoid outages from happening with the growing number, intensity and duration of the adverse weather.”

Joining Parvania at the helm of the new center is the University of Calgary’s Hamid Zareipour, a professor of electrical and software engineering. Some $5 million in funding is coming from the U.S. National Science Foundation with the rest coming from Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

The center will pursue a broad interdisciplinary approach, tapping faculty from across the Utah campus, namely co-principal investigators Valerio Pascucci of the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute, biologist William Andregg, director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy, and Divya Chandrasekhar, associate professor in the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning.

“Collectively, these resources can facilitate the resilience of critical power grid infrastructure against extreme conditions,” said Erin Rothwell, the university’s vice president for research. “This center solidifies the University of Utah’s leadership in power grid resilience research and technology innovation.”

The U.S.-Canada Center on Climate-Resilient Western Interconnected Grid brings together leading experts in power engineering, climate, forestry, data analysis, policy and social sciences from a network of 35 partners, including the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, or WECC.

“As the regional entity with a focus on grid reliability and security for the Western Interconnection, we believe this new interdisciplinary center at the University of Utah will align greatly with the work of WECC,” Branden Sudduth, the nonprofit’s vice president of reliability planning and performance.

Extreme weather events aren’t the only challenge the grid faces.

“Additionally, much of the resource mix is changing from conventional generation to high penetrations of weather-dependent clean energy resources,” Sudduth said. “Addressing this through a multi-faceted, cross-collaboration approach is the best way to ensure a reliable and secure power supply.”

The new center will create an innovative cyberinfrastructure (CI) dedicated to gathering and distributing climate and grid data within the Western Interconnection’s stakeholder community.

“Our primary aim is to develop a trustworthy CI framework that fosters secure collaboration and information sharing among participants from academia, industry, and government,” said Pascucci, director of the Center for Extreme Data Management Analysis and Visualization (CEDMAV) and John R. Parks Endowed Chair Professor of Computing. “This collaborative effort will provide the essential data for constructing and sharing customized models for risk quantification and forecasting of regional extreme climate disturbances.”

While the Western grid is interconnected, it is not overseen by any single entity, but rather by dozens of agencies and utility companies. Overhauling it will require a collective effort by various communities whose priorities may not be in full alignment.

Meanwhile, the Western grid’s wires span a wide range of landscapes with different climates and topography and electricity often travels long distances from generating stations to end users. Vulnerabilities differ from place to place, according to Chandrasekhar. The new center seeks to provide a platform where all the stakeholders can engage in a process to craft solutions that benefit everyone.

Besides working with the communities, the center will connect with the utilities that are developing and implementing new technologies and assess the legal and regulatory constraints.

“The idea of centers like this is to help bridge that gap, to ask, ‘What are the needs of the hour from both the community perspective and the industry perspective?’” Chandrasekhar said. “And what can science do to help bridge that gap, and in turn, the science that you produce therefore becomes more and more usable.”