Resnick Institute

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Alessandro Zocca

DSPx Workshop: Paving the Way for Future Distribution Power Grids

Spring 2019

The way we produce and use power has changed dramatically in recent years. The global transition towards more sustainable fossil-free energy systems is driving the evolution of power grids along with another significant trend, the advent of distributed energy resources (DERs).

DERs are electricity-producing resources or controllable loads deployed in our power systems. New technology including electric vehicles, smart meters, energy storage devices, residential solar panels, smart buildings and appliances are all examples of DERs. The widespread adoption of DERs, and the ability to connect and coordinate them with each other using the grid is highly desirable. It makes the grid more adaptive and efficient, and aids tremendously in helping us achieve sustainability goals.

Many DERs are, or will be placed in our homes, or used directly by us as final customers. This means that the new technology will impact “distribution grids” in particular. The term “distribution grid” commonly refers to the “last part” of the power grid infrastructure, the one that brings power at low voltages from the closest feeder to individual homes, as well as to industrial and commercial buildings.

In order to optimally design and operate future distribution grids, there is an urgent need to connect future grid trends, potential technological needs and market mechanisms, with longer term academic and industrial research objectives; to identify gaps in R&D and areas of future research that will be relevant in the next 15 years. This was precisely the goal of the “Future Distribution Grid R&D, Next Generation Distribution System Platform (DSPx)” workshop that I attended at the EPRI (Electrical Power Research Institute) in Charlotte (NC), with other researchers from Caltech and the Resnick institute from March 20-21.

The workshop brought together people with very different backgrounds and roles in distribution grid transformation: researchers from academia and national labs, regulators, representatives of the biggest utilities, people from the Department of Energy, etc. I believe events like this are extremely important to create the right synergies between parties, that individually do not have the resources and expertise to tackle this complex and multifaceted design and planning problem.

Core discussion topics included (i) how to plan reliability and resilience for distribution grids that will be increasingly more uncertain and less centrally controllable, (ii) how to properly model and forecast future DER adoption and customer behavior, (iii) how to improve the way we operate distribution grids and the way they are interconnected with long-distance transmission grids.

The goal of my research at Caltech and the Resnick Institute is to develop appropriate mathematical and statistical tools that can be used to aid and inform these decisions. In particular, we aim to quantify the impact of increasing uncertainty (possibly due to significant load fluctuations from higher penetration of renewables) on power grid reliability, and to understand how to mitigate this through the design of adaptively changing networks.

Attending the workshop gave me an opportunity to discover how the energy sector is structured and regulated in the US. It was a very different experience from the academic conferences I usually attend, and for this reason extremely insightful. For instance, I finally got a glimpse of all the steps necessary to successfully transfer knowledge outside of academia and implement research ideas into practice.

Most of my current research focuses on transmission networks, but during the discussion with the utilities, several compelling needs and issues concerning distribution grids were raised. Most of these require fine mathematical modeling and statistical methods that only academic research can provide, and my colleagues and I from the RSRG and NetLab groups at Caltech left with several new ideas and problems to work on.

This workshop made me realize how exciting it is to be part of this research effort. Designing the future grid is a crucial challenge requiring a truly new paradigm. Coming from the academic side, I was inspired to see so much interest, synergy and investment from others. After all, a joint effort is the only way we can make this transition happen quickly, efficiently and safely!

Alessandro Zocca

About the Author

Resnick Postdoctoral Fellow Alessandro Zocca works in collaboration with Professors Adam Wierman and Steven Low developing new mathematical models that describe the intrinsic uncertainty affecting energy networks, capturing the complicated spatio-temporal correlations of renewable energy generation and the interplay of this randomness with physical network constraints.