Designing a decentralized energy grid

August 13, 2019 //By Nick Flaherty
NREL researchers Annabelle Pratt, Chin-Yao Chang, Bri-Mathias Hodge, and Benjamin Kroposki collaborate in the Power Systems Energy Center in the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) at NREL working on AEG .
Autonomous energy grid technology and machine learning aim to protect the grid from disruption and cyberattacks

A team at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is working on autonomous energy grid (AEG) technology to ensure the electricity grid of the future can manage a growing base of intelligent energy devices, variable renewable energy, and advanced controls.

"The future grid will be much more distributed too complex to control with today’s techniques and technologies," said Benjamin Kroposki, director of NREL's Power Systems Engineering Center. "We need a path to get there—to reach the potential of all these new technologies integrating into the power system."

The AEG effort envisions a self-driving power system—a very "aware" network of technologies and distributed controls that work together to efficiently match bi-directional energy supply to energy demand. This is a hard pivot from today’s system, in which centralized control is used to manage one-way electricity flows to consumers along power lines that spoke out from central generators.

Instead, AEG grids are composed within one another, like a fractalized group of microgrids. Sections, or "cells" of AEG use pervasive communication and controllability to continually pursue their best operating conditions, which adjust to the temperament of customer demand, available generation, and pricing.

Decentralized control solves a few challenges as billions of new energy devices generating energy from variable resources are difficult to manage centrally. At the moment, the AEG is a highly theoretical framework for future energy systems to build from, with potential application 10 years out and a few early adopters currently trialing the technology. 

AEG follows from an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) project called Network Optimized Distributed Energy Systems (NODES) developing real-time optimization and control methods for power systems. "I would say for us, it all started with NODES," said Andrey Bernstein, Senior Researcher and AEG Technical Lead . "In terms of algorithms and framework, NODES covers just one cell—one bounded community.

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