A small town in Alaska hooks up solar power and a backup generator to keep the
lights on.

Two villages in India use cow manure and solar energy to get electricity in their homes for the first time.

In Spokane, researchers study how to share solar energy back and forth across power lines throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Meanwhile, a clock is ticking. The threat of climate change hangs in the air like smoke from increasingly common wildfires or like the hot summer days that now linger too long into the fall.

“The million-dollar question is not how to add more wind and solar to the power grid,” says Anjan Bose, Regents Professor in Washington State University’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “It’s how to make it run reliably and at the same time, try to bring up the resiliency, given the kinds of issues we’re facing with extreme weather and cybersecurity threats.”

It’s a daunting challenge for the world to move quickly to renewables and prevent the worst impacts of climate change. The way we get energy is changing rapidly and dramatically, and the road to decarbonization runs straight through eastern Washington.

“Eastern Washington is really a ‘power’ power,” says Noel Schulz, Edmund O. Schweitzer III Chair in Power Apparatus and Systems and codirector of the WSU and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) Advanced Grid Institute. “As you look at PNNL, WSU, Avista, Schweitzer Engineering Labs, and Itron, we really have a lot of innovation coming out and working on solutions on the next grid.”

Sectors such as transportation and power generation will need to decarbonize, which means moving to sustainable energy such as hydropower, wind, solar, and perhaps tidal energy later. Nuclear energy also doesn’t emit greenhouse gases.

“The common thread between all of these energy sources is the power grid,” says Mani Venkatasubramanian, Boeing Distinguished Professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of WSU’s Energy Systems Innovation Center (ESIC). He also holds a joint PNNL appointment. “The key is how can we support the entirety of energy consumption by harnessing it to the power grid. The biggest engineering challenge is to do this without sacrificing the reliability and affordability that the customers are used to.”

Unlike a coal-fired power plant, sustainable energy is largely distributed⁠—such as solar panels on rooftop after rooftop. Solar and wind power also famously work when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. They can’t be easily stored. Meanwhile, as power grid operators have to change the way they’ve always done business, climate change and serious events like extreme heat, flooding, and wildfires are creating more demand and causing more interruptions for the grid. Utilities now have engineers on staff to specifically plan for extreme events.

“As we are going through the transition, we have to, in fact, improve our system,” says Venkatasubramanian.

Looking at the power grid’s “edge,” like small solar panels on a home, may provide new opportunities for energy storage, says Anamika Dubey, Huie-Rogers Endowed Chair in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Dubey, who holds a joint appointment with PNNL, and her colleagues have been looking into how to leverage assets at the distribution level, such as rooftop solar panels or electric car batteries, as storage to improve flexibility.

“One of the main challenges is that when we get to the grid edge, the scale of the problem is too large⁠—we’re actually looking into tens of millions of devices,” she says. “If you’re trying to aggregate them and provide their flexibility or support for the bulk grid, how do we develop models that are helpful enough for us to inform the decision-making process?”

Microgrids are also an increasingly popular possible solution for energy challenges. Microgrids are self-contained grids with a local energy source that can be connected to the larger grid but can also function independently. Through a partnership with India, WSU researchers are working with two villages there to develop and test microgrids.

“Renewables are a challenge, but they can also provide an opportunity in rural electrification⁠—places where there are no power lines and transmission, where we can use local resources,” says Schulz.

While the researchers look toward making better use of the renewables, they’re also keeping an eye on better managing the traditional bulk power grid. Venkatasubramanian’s group, for instance, has developed a software tool to monitor oscillations and the health of the power grid in real time that can notify grid operators when instability is occurring. The software tool was recently licensed by France’s grid operator and helped to quickly and seamlessly transition Ukraine from Russia to the European power grid last winter.

“The technology is helping with such uncertainties, and that’s the kind of technology that we need a lot more of in the future,” he says. “As we have these renewables more and more in the system, we need to be able to operate on the go.”

The solutions are available now; perhaps they are not the most elegant, but they can be done, says Bose.

“The question is not really about technology. It’s a question of actual deployment and whether we can deploy within the time frame that has been laid out. That’s the real question, and that’s not dependent on either universities or even the federal government,” he says.

So how confident are the researchers that society can incorporate renewables into the power grid to prevent the worst effects of climate change?

“One hundred percent,” says Venkatasubramanian. “Because that’s what engineers do. When we have challenges, we find solutions.”

Solar panels in a field
The Avista Lind Solar Farm is Washington state’s largest solar farm spanning over 200 acres. (From video courtesy iFiber One News)