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Nils Stenvig: Exploring the world’s largest machine

Nils Stenvig is modeling the nation’s bulk electric system for DOE’s North American Energy Resilience Model to better understand and predict the grid’s behavior.

Nils Stenvig has always had an interest in solving big problems. That desire drove his focus on electrical engineering in college and eventually led him to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where today he’s using his expertise to better understand the world’s largest machine—the electrical grid.

Stenvig is lending his expertise in power systems, mathematics and modeling to help create a living simulation of North America’s interdependent energy infrastructure. His team is modeling the nation’s bulk electric system—the hundreds of thousands of miles of high-voltage cabling and equipment that transmits electricity across vast distances.

The research focuses on simulations of major grid disturbances that exceed industry design-practice and may result in nationally propagating impacts. One important development area for the simulations is modeling of protective relay systems. The detection and decision-making functions of protection systems ultimately determines the response and behavior of the electric grid. Ideally the equipment is designed and coordinated to detect and resolve anomalies affecting the smooth flow of electricity across the nation. But regional study and coordination can be challenging due to varying operational practices and designs.

The work feeds into development of the North American Energy Resilience Model (NAERM), a key project of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity designed to model, simulate and assess the behavior of the electric power system and its interdependencies with natural gas and other critical infrastructure.

For Stenvig, the research dovetails nicely with his career-long interest in a broad range of research with a national impact.

“It’s really how I decided to focus on electrical engineering (EE),” said Stenvig, who works in the Power & Energy Systems Group at ORNL.

A lot of my peers in college switched their majors, but I stayed in EE and concentrated on the power grid. Supporting the grid is a big-world application that affects the entire country. - Nils Stenvig

Stenvig grew up in Michigan’s upper peninsula some 30 minutes from the school that would be his alma mater—Michigan Technological University (MTU). “My brain seemed to fit best in the areas of science, math and physics in high school, and it was a natural fit to go into electrical engineering at Michigan Tech,” he said.

Eager for varied experiences, Stenvig sought out opportunities at home and abroad that gave him exposure to the power industry during college. He interned with International Transmission and Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative, and spent a summer as a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship. Along the way, he earned two master’s degrees, one in EE and the other in business administration. He even got exposure to a national lab environment by working with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a graduate research assistant at MTU.

It was during a study abroad session in Finland and an NSF research stint in Norway that Stenvig had the opportunity to explore his Scandinavian heritage—another of his interests. His mother’s family is from Finland, while his father’s family hails from Norway. Stenvig uncovered his family’s history, met long-lost relatives, and found where his ancestors had lived just before traveling to the United States. His family name, in fact, is traced back to Steinvikholm Castle, where the last archbishop of Norway resided. The Stenvig family home overlooked the castle from the banks of the fjord, and is now preserved in a field museum in Trondheim, Norway.

With his two graduate degrees in hand, Stenvig set off on explorations of his own. He began working at American Transmission Company , a high-voltage electric transmission system operator, through a succession of positions that gave him direct experience in operations, asset management, and systems planning.

His first job entailed working in a fast-paced environment that supported a transmission system control center. In another position he was tasked with managing field crews and developing a strategy that might require, for instance, a quick decision on whether to redesign an equipment sub-system for better long-term operation rather than just replacing a failed component. The work involved modeling and simulation of components such as protective relays, giving him direct experience with the type of research he’s now conducting at ORNL.

“The value I saw long-term for myself was exposure to a lot of different job functions,” Stenvig said. “I ended up in a system planning role for interconnections and special studies. It was very interesting, but I wanted something larger than just one system. And that’s when I got the call from Oak Ridge.

“The implications of the work that takes place in the national laboratories here fit my mentality of wanting to make a difference and having that national mission in mind.” he added.

One of his early projects at Oak Ridge was the transformer reserve project that assessed the state of equipment essential for the restoration of the grid in the event of a major disruption. He also had an opportunity to learn more about the function and use of microgrids—locally sited power generation and energy storage assets—from his colleagues.

For now, NAERM is taking up 100% of Stenvig’s time. The project includes two components, an offline planning and modeling simulation focus, as well as real-time situational awareness. He is working with other national labs to model and simulate other infrastructure supporting the grid—notably natural gas pipelines. Tying those planning and real-time streams together provides a new national capability to help better understand and defend critical infrastructure, Stenvig said.

The work builds on the engineer’s experience at ORNL helping Puerto Rico rebuild and redesign its power grid after the devastating impacts from the 2017 hurricane season. Stenvig and his colleagues at ORNL and other national labs constructed a planning model of the Puerto Rico grid with a focus on protection equipment for use by the territory’s electric utility.

By its nature, NAERM will likely lead to more opportunities for technical research as it provides a better understanding of the larger workings of the power grid, Stenvig relates. “I hope I’ll always have the opportunity to work on something of national importance and mindful of energy security. I think it’s fair to say that I won’t have to worry about that as we move forward.”

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science.