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How Aurora Borealis Affects Renewable Energy Incorporated Grids

As the world shifts toward more renewable energy resources and attempts to tackle the consequences of climate change, the endurance of the energy infrastructure is becoming ever more critical.

How Aurora Borealis Affects Renewable Energy Incorporated Grids

Image Credit: University of Oklahoma.

Scientist Paul Moses, Ph.D., from the University of Oklahoma, has been bestowed a Faculty Early Career Development Award, called a CAREER award, by the National Science Foundation to better comprehend how grid disturbances from events such as solar storms affect energy infrastructure.

In one of the first reported occurrences, the 1859 Carrington Event, an extreme solar flare resulted in the telegraph systems going erratic across the globe. Similarly, the magnetism produced during Aurora Borealis can affect space satellites and electrical power grids, as reported on March 1989 in Quebec, Canada.

Solar events like the Aurora Borealis are created by what we call geomagnetic storms, which are caused by solar flare activity and solar winds. When that hits the atmosphere, it creates electromagnetic disruptions, which in turn affect the power grid.

Paul Moses, Ph.D., Project Lead and Scientist, University of Oklahoma

“That has been well studied for a long time, but not when we combine renewable energy systems, like solar and wind power, and battery storage, into those systems. There are a lot of knowledge gaps in how those disturbances affect the power grids in a renewable energy-rich environment,” Moses added.

Moses, an Assistant Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Gallogly College of Engineering, will make use of the 5-year CAREER award to develop the study of these types of erratic grid disturbances—their fundamental physics and features, considering the high capacities of renewable energy incorporated into legacy power grid infrastructure, to enhance mitigation policies that could help stop failure of the grid.

A lot of the components in our power grid are based on century-old design principles like the transformer, which is the device that changes voltages. The transformer is everywhere, and it is not going away for decades to come, so we're stuck, in a way, with these legacy components.

Paul Moses, Ph.D., Project Lead and Scientist,  University of Oklahoma

“We want to learn how they respond to this renewable energy-rich environment coupled with all these disturbances like geomagnetic storms and that presents new burdens and stressors,” he said.

Moses expresses that there will be three phases to the project. To commence, he is creating models and software to mimic geomagnetic storms and their effect on the grid.

By modeling the wear and tear of legacy energy infrastructure parts and the effects of geomagnetic storms, he anticipates better comprehension of possible impacts on the lifecycle and performance of important parts to enhance grid resiliency and fast recovery.

“When you have solar, wind, and battery storage, it has to be connected to the grid through what we call inverters or solid-state power converters,” Moses said.

That presents a new uncertainty because this is something that's cropped up in recent years. How does this new technology associated with renewables work with the old technology—the archaic infrastructure? The grid fundamentally was not designed to operate with these devices, so it raises new uncertainties.

Paul Moses, Ph.D., Project Lead and Scientist,  University of Oklahoma

While the project’s first phase focuses on understanding methods to alleviate or stop grid failure, its second phase is to enhance the discovery of electrical transients from geomagnetic storms or other erratic grid disturbances.

“A lot of these phenomena are very difficult to detect and go unnoticed until it's too late, so the next phase is to look at better detection of these disturbances and try to anticipate a problem before it causes irreversible damage,” he said.

The third phase shifts the research from computer simulations to the laboratory, aiming to corroborate the modeling with experiments, which will also offer openings for Moses’ students to add to the experimentation.

“Ultimately, this project is aimed at de-risking the integration of sustainable energy technologies to realize a more robust, resilient, and self-healing energy infrastructure for greater economic prosperity, health, and living standards for society,” he said.

Integrated across each stage of the project is educational outreach, including the creation of STEM-focused educational resources for K-12 students to have access to an electrical energy-associated curriculum.

The project, “CAREER: Untangling Chaotic Electromagnetic Transient Phenomena in Power Systems Mixed with Volatile Inverter-Based Renewable Energy Resources,” is backed by the National Science Foundation, award no. 2237527.

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