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ORNL at the Climate READi workshop: Resilient power systems in the context of climate change

ORNL’s Deputy for Science and Technology Susan Hubbard opens the Climate READi Southeast workshop in Knoxville. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept of Energy
ORNL’s Deputy for Science and Technology Susan Hubbard opens the Climate READi Southeast workshop in Knoxville. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept of Energy

The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other institutions joined industry stakeholders in exploring solutions for power grid climate resilience at the Climate READi Southeast workshop co-hosted by EPRI and ORNL’s Water Power Program on April 10-11.

As extreme weather events increase in frequency and society’s dependence on electricity grows, EPRI launched Climate READi, or the REsilience and ADaptation Initiative, to deliver a comprehensive, consistent and collaborative approach to mitigate physical climate risk, ensure resilient energy and enable robust planning.

DOE national laboratory scientists have long worked on issues at the nexus of water and energy, recognizing that water and energy systems are strongly coupled and already stressed. “Climate change is now exacerbating that stress,” said ORNL Deputy for Science and Technology Susan Hubbard at the Knoxville, Tennessee, workshop. “We now recognize that it is important to consider energy resiliency and decarbonization in the context of climate change and across key regions.” 

The gathering and similar outreach efforts are a good opportunity to bring together many voices to find solutions to fortify grid operations against extreme weather such as hurricanes and unusual winter storms that have impacted southeastern power in the last several years, she said.

Morgan Scott, director of EPRI’s Climate READi effort, said the gathering provides the opportunity to concentrate on regionally specific hazards with a science-first focus. The workshop addressed two challenging climate hazards in the Southeast, extreme cold and hurricanes, that can significantly impact both coastal and inland communities and how to inform power system planning in the region with these hazards in mind. With a wide variety of attendees in the room, including power companies and Climate READi Affinity Group members, Scott said “we’re here to facilitate bridging the gap between the scientific community and power practitioners.”

DOE’s national labs are uniquely suited to address the issue with their multi-disciplinary focus, Hubbard emphasized. Science and technology expertise and resources at ORNL such as Earth-scale system models and grid simulations running on the world’s fastest supercomputer can help planners better understand how the environment and energy systems are changing. Detailed data on power outages, watersheds and energy infrastructure, combined with real-time grid situational awareness tools can help utility planners, regulatory authorities, first responders and other decision-makers better predict and prepare the grid system for extreme events.

Industry participants shared past experiences such as flooding and wind damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, as well as rolling blackouts and frozen equipment as a result of unusual winter storms. The workshop highlighted how DOE national labs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other institutions have studied those unique events and produced science-backed tools to assist planning efforts.

Presenters said a warming climate presents an array of challenges, including preparing for devastating but infrequent winter storms that could “catch out” some grid systems simply because they happen less often in a warming climate. They cited the mid-February 2021 polar vortex that resulted in a series of snow and ice storms, record low temperatures, more than 10 million power outages and the near-failure of the Texas power grid. The Southeast grid was also challenged by Winter Storm Elliott during December 2022, in which temperatures dropped more than forecasted and lingered there, resulting in the loss of 90,500 megawatts of generation at its peak and 1.5 million customer outages in the eastern two-thirds of the nation. 

In hurricane events, participants emphasized the damage possible from flooding not only from coastal storm surge, but also from heavy and prolonged rain events as storms move inland and sometimes stall out. Utility operators are already taking measures such as building elevated substations and moving important switches and valves higher on infrastructure to safeguard against future events.

Shih-Chieh Kao, lead for ORNL’s Water Power Program and its Water Resources Science and Engineering group, presented helpful hydrological tools developed at ORNL such as TRITON, the Two-dimensional Runoff Inundation Toolkit for Operational Needs, which simulates flooding events, using supercomputing to quickly create accurate inundation maps of targeted areas. Using TRITON, Kao and his team have modeled the entire Missouri River Basin at a 30-meter and 10-meter resolution, providing critical information on how a particular region may be affected by extreme weather events. He also described open-source data on downscaled hydroclimate projections for the entire country developed by ORNL as part of DOE’s work for the SECURE Water act. 

ORNL’s Shih-Chieh Kao, Water Power Program manager and lead for the lab’s Water Resources Science and Engineering group, describes scientific tools and expertise available at the lab to guide power grid climate resilience strategies. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy
ORNL’s Shih-Chieh Kao, Water Power Program manager and lead for the lab’s Water Resources Science and Engineering group, describes scientific tools and expertise available at the lab to guide power grid climate resilience strategies. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Kao noted that one of ORNL’s biggest tools to solve large-scale problems is the Frontier supercomputer, the nation’s fastest and first exascale computing system, supporting accelerated science. Frontier is an asset of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science user facility that is freely available to industry as long as the results are published in the scientific domain and can be used to advance open scientific or engineering understanding. Frontier is a great resource that can be overlooked or assumed to be out of reach, he emphasized.

Hubbard also discussed opportunities for partnerships with ORNL’s Climate Change Science Institute, or CCSI,  which is applying its computational science breakthroughs to provide useful tools for the energy sector. CCSI is working with partners to translate data, knowledge and an applied understanding of climate change science into equitable and sustainable solutions for communities, regions and nationwide.

Nils Stenvig, lead for the Power Systems Resilience group at ORNL, gave an overview of the North American Energy Resilience Model, or NAERM, that provides interdependent energy systems modeling, threat assessment and planning capabilities. The model, designed for DOE and other federal agencies, integrates near-real-time data about the interdependent bulk power system, natural gas pipelines and supply infrastructure. The model, leveraging capabilities of the ORNL Grid Integration and Deployment Center, gives users the ability to link mitigation strategies by industry across a region for better overall resilience of the interconnected grid system, he said.

Hubbard said that building climate resilience into the power grid will require new partnerships and collaboration. “It is important to build networks of people with different expertise and perspectives to solve these challenges,” she said.

Within the convergence of climate-water-energy research, ORNL is involved in several other relevant projects and tools that can be used to collaboratively build resilience including: 

  • Using Fronter to perform the largest known power systems computation ever through the ExaSGD project — providing a deeper understanding of how weather will impact the grid, optimize rapid response, and explore optimal operational strategies for the grid.
  • Through the Watershed Dynamics and Evolution Science Focus Area,  ORNL is working to better understand and predict the dominant processes in the Tennessee River Basin and how those will change because of land use and climate disturbances.
  • ORNL is looking at how coastal watersheds are changing, quantifying how redox and salinity gradients are shaped by evolving waterways. 
  • As part of an Integrated Field Laboratory in Southeast Texas, ORNL is working with collaborators to understand stressors and deliver science-based climate adaption strategies with community equity considered.
  • The lab is leading multiple modeling and analysis capabilities for the nation that are focused on energy impact related to the climate and grid monitoring. In addition to NAERM, these include EAGLE-I, which provides real-time situational awareness of power outages; URBAN-NET, which is enhancing infrastructure modeling and, by extension, disaster response planning; ForWarn, a vegetation change recognition and tracking system; and ODIN, which will provide a secure, nationwide interoperable framework for outage data exchange.     

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