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Research seeks to improve electrical infrastructure against weather outages

Researchers at Purdue University are working toward a solution to help minimize risks associated with power outages caused by severe weather events, such as the recent series of hurricanes that devastated several nations. Makarand Hastak, professor and head of Construction Engineering and Management, is leading a multidisciplinary team of researchers in a project titled Towards a Resilient Grid: An Investment Prioritization Decision Framework that Integrates the Growing Risks of Severe Weather-Induced Outages, funded by a $468,851 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Researchers at Purdue University are working toward a solution to help minimize risks associated with power outages caused by severe weather events, such as the recent series of hurricanes that devastated several nations.

Makarand Hastak, professor and head of Construction Engineering and Management, is leading a multidisciplinary team of researchers in a project titled Towards a Resilient Grid: An Investment Prioritization Decision Framework that Integrates the Growing Risks of Severe Weather-Induced Outages, funded by a $468,851 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Sayanti Mukherjee, a recent PhD graduate whose dissertation was the basis for this research, will be working on the project as a postdoctoral research assistant. The multidisciplinary team also includes Roshanak Nateghi, an assistant professor in the School of Industrial Engineering and in Environmental and Ecological Engineering, and Wallace E. Tyner, a professor in agricultural economics, as Co-Principal Investigators.

“Electrical infrastructure forms the cornerstone of our society,” Mukherjee said. “Because of the complex interdependencies that exist between the electrical and energy infrastructure as well as all other critical infrastructure systems in the U.S., disruption in the electric sector can adversely affect our national security, digital economy, public health, and the environment, causing devastating socioeconomic impacts.”

Sayanti Mukherjee examines data at a utility plant Sayanti Mukherjee examines data at a utility plant. Photo by Trevor Mahlmann

With the U.S. electrical infrastructure aging and many of the structures running beyond their design life, the power grid is becoming more vulnerable to large-scale, prolonged outages. It is estimated that electrical outages have cost the U.S. economy $20-55 billion USD annually from 2003-12. In Florida, emergency officials have indicated more than 3.7 million customers, more than 36 percent, were without power following Hurricane Irma.

“As we have seen from the recent events due to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the resilience of power grid infrastructure is very important from a social and economic perspective,” Hastak said. “Even after investing millions of dollars in upgrading their grid, Florida Power and Light still faced prolonged power outages. We want to understand what investment decisions are necessary to further mitigate those risks.”

The team’s recent analysis of the U.S. electric power outages recorded by the Department of Energy reveals that severe weather and climate events have accounted for over 50 percent of all the major power outages over the past two decades. “Under climate change, severe weather and climate induced outages will likely increase,” Nateghi said. “It is therefore critical to study effective investment mechanisms to enhance the resilience of the grid in the face of climate extremes.”

The project seeks to develop a transformative decision support system, through algorithm-based new risk assessment models, that can better link outages and the resulting economic and societal impacts, and deal with complex uncertainties of weather-related extreme events. Models will estimate the compounding economic losses, and optimization techniques will determine the best strategies for improving electrical infrastructure.

Tyner said the project will examine regional case studies and is intended to bring about an understanding of the system as well as improvements. “The problem is that it is difficult for utilities to be reimbursed for their expenditures on increasing the grid reliability,” he said. “Utility commissions want to pay for electricity generation and distribution, and they have yet to appreciate the importance of expenditures on reliability.”

The project will integrate expertise from infrastructure management, energy infrastructure performance analysis, risk analysis, sustainability and resilience assessment, energy economics, and policy analysis.

The outcome of the research aims to help state regulators make informed decisions related to the approval of utility companies’ capital investments and help federal regulatory bodies, such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, design better performance metrics to enhance the resilience of the country’s power grid. 

 

Video Interview Extras: NSF Funding and Project Plans