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Ben Ollis: Microgrids for a resilient power system

ORNL researcher Ben Ollis is optimizing ORNL-developed control systems for a range of projects in which solar energy, energy storage and other locally sited power assets known as microgrids provide reliable, secure electricity to homes and businesses.

While learning the ins and outs of utility operations as a part-time dispatcher during college, Ben Ollis coped with issues from storm-damaged power lines to transformer faults caused by snakes crawling into substation equipment (yes, it’s a real problem). Today the power systems engineer is using his hands-on experience at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop technology that will help industry adapt to a changing grid environment.

Ollis spent his time at the utility answering the customer line and keeping an eye on its control center while routing personnel as needed to make repairs. He recalls a Christmas Eve when a small, isolated community served by the utility lost power. Crews used four-wheelers to traverse the six miles of mountainous right-of-way to find the physical problem along the distribution system. Ollis was asked to re-energize the line so the crew could follow the resulting flash as the fault occurred. “You learned to improvise sometimes; to find the things that work,” Ollis noted.

He became acquainted with the operation of a much larger grid while interning as an undergrad in the planning department at Duke Energy in North Carolina. Ollis then brought that industry experience to the Power and Energy Systems Group at ORNL, where he worked while earning his master’s degree in electrical engineering with a concentration in power systems.

“Those experiences gave me an appreciation for real-world challenges, and I’ve tried to bring that mindset into my research,” Ollis said. Since hiring on as full-time R&D staff in 2014, Ollis said he has tried to envision where technology needs to go in the next 15 years as the grid evolves, and at the same time produce solutions that industry can use in the next 3 years as they work toward those long-term goals.

Ollis started out developing energy storage control systems at ORNL and that work transitioned into microgrids—local systems made up of power generation and energy storage that can provide reliability to the communities where they’re sited, and can help stabilize the larger grid. ORNL has conducted extensive research on microgrid controls to maximize performance of those assets.

ORNL’s open-source software known as CSEISMIC  (Complete System Level Efficient and Interoperable Solution for Microgrid Integrated Controls) was developed and tested using the lab’s own microgrid and deployed in a real-world neighborhood in Hoover, Alabama, in conjunction with utility holder Southern Company. Now Ollis and his colleagues are optimizing the controller for use in a new townhome community in Atlanta.

In Alabama, Ollis and his team deployed CSEISMIC to control the solar panel array, energy storage facility, and backup natural gas generator that make up the large, centralized microgrid that sits less than a mile from the 62-home neighborhood known as Reynolds Landing in a collaboration with Southern. The controller is designed to maximize the usage of the solar, storage, and generator while providing reliable backup power to the neighborhood. In the event of an outage, CSEISMIC isolates the neighborhood from the main grid and uses the microgrid generation to keep the power on until the grid is restored.

The collaboration will continue in Georgia, where a different type of microgrid will be installed. Each of the 42 townhomes in a community known as Altus Landing will have its own rooftop solar panels connected to a lithium-ion battery pack for energy storage in the garage. So instead of three power sources for the entire neighborhood in Alabama, Altus Landing will have two in each home, which means 84 power sources total, requiring much more complex optimization and scheduling.

Tailoring microgrids for customer wants and power system needs

“One customer may just want to prioritize their comfort, while another will emphasize saving as much money as they can,” Ollis said. The Atlanta project will be more about load forecasting and market operation than traditional controls, he added.

Ollis and his colleagues are also exploring ways to dynamically network a region’s worth of microgrids to provide even more resilience to power networks. “If you have a metropolitan area with numerous microgrids, we want to create a framework where they can work in parallel to increase reliability for the entire system,” Ollis said. ORNL’s work on the project will focus on protective devices for the microgrids that can prevent cascading outages if one part of the system is disrupted.

He has also provided technical analysis of microgrid proposals for Puerto Rico’s economic development authority, which is looking to deploy more of the locally sited microgrids as a way to increase the island’s resilience to hurricanes and other events.

For Ollis, the disparate projects could only be accomplished somewhere like ORNL. “Microgrids are taking everything you have to consider on the larger grid and shrinking it: asset location and sizing, how large your fleet is, load shaping and forecasting, solar availability, and control systems. To work on microgrids you need to lean on a lot of people; you can’t do everything yourself. You need people who are good at communications, people who are good at cybersecurity,  people who are good at sensors and data processing, and so on. It’s a very collaborative project.”

Ollis sees a two-fold push in the future of power systems research as the grid is modernized and becomes more vulnerable to deliberate disruption in the form of cyberattacks and natural disruption such as damaging storms. One is to increase the security of the system and the other is to build in resilience when disruptions do occur. “You can never get to 100% reliability, but how can you push the 99s out there as far as you can and help people?” he asked.

Growing up near ORNL, Ollis benefited from a STEM program in high school that exposed students to different engineering areas every year—from constructing a generator for electrical engineering, to building a bridge in civil engineering, to classes in robotics and 3D printing. “With that exposure to different areas, I knew I wanted to pursue something in engineering.”

His advice for young scientists? “I personally gained a lot by being embedded in industry—seeing the day-to-day concerns and challenges for utilities. It helped me look for ways to have a meaningful impact,” Ollis said. “Understanding the problems faced every day by people in the field can help ground research in reality and provide something which is tangible and impactful.”

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