Public Release: 

PNNL envisions smart energy approach projected to save billions

DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

SEATTLE - While efficient, affordable electricity serves as a cornerstone of American prosperity, the nation's electric system suffers from aging infrastructure, security vulnerabilities and operating instabilities and inefficiencies. Ratepayers also must foot the bill for costly mortgages on large capital assets sized to meet peak demands that occur only a few hours per year.

"Without a change in course, we project that the United States will have to invest $450 billion in conventional electric infrastructure just to meet expected growth in demand in the next 20 years," said Rob Pratt, staff scientist at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "The mortgage on new electric infrastructure is a far bigger component of electric rates than fuel costs, so minimizing new infrastructure is essential to keeping rates affordable."

Increasing grid efficiency also is critical, according to Pratt. On average, only 75 percent of the nation's generation assets and 50 percent of the distributed systems are used, with peak capacity of 10 percent and 25 percent, respectively, held in reserve to meet just 400 hours of peak usage. This reserve comes at a significant cost to ratepayers, said Pratt.

In addition, the system's aging architecture limits introduction of new technology and results in vulnerability to major outages and attack. "There is an urgent need to enhance national security by increasing the resiliency of the grid to man-made and natural disruptions," said Pratt.

The answer, according to Pratt, is a complete transformation of the electricity system through use of information technology to integrate the traditional elements of supply and demand, transmission and distribution with new technologies such as superconductors, energy storage, customer load management and distributed generation. By moving the energy system into the information age, information technologies and newly created market efficiencies can optimize the system, minimize the need for new infrastructure, lower costs and make the system more secure.

According to studies conducted at PNNL, more than $80 billion could be saved over the next 20 years by actively managing load to defer new construction, improving grid management to reduce outage costs and increasing customer efficiencies through advanced controls and diagnostics.

For example, PNNL engineers are designing smart chips that would be fitted onto household appliances to continually monitor fluctuations in the power grid. When the grid is under high periods of stress, the chip would identify these fluctuations and automatically shut down the appliance for a short period of time to help stabilize the system.

"Solutions such as these that involve adapting and influencing information, coupled with control technology approaches, will deliver a reliable energy infrastructure that's in step with the information revolution and the nation's economy in general," Pratt said.


Note: Robert Pratt will present "Transforming the U.S. Electricity System" at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Seattle on Friday, February 13 at 9:00 a.m. Pratt's presentation is part of the symposia he co-organized, entitled "Bringing the Electricity System into the Information Age" from 9:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is a Department of Energy Office of Science facility that is discovering new knowledge through fundamental research and providing science-based solutions to some of the nation's most pressing challenges in national security, energy and environmental quality. The laboratory employs more than 3,800 scientists, engineers, technicians and support staff, and has an annual budget of nearly $600 million. Battelle, based in Columbus, Ohio, has operated PNNL since its inception in 1965 for the federal government.

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