May 1, 2017

Leader of PNNL Electricity Infrastructure Research Discusses Grid Modernization with U.S. Senate

Hearing examines opportunities to improve American energy infrastructure

Carl Imhoff

One hundred years ago, personal computers and cell phones didn’t exist. Neither did hundreds of other technologies that Americans take for granted today.

Our daily lives and national economy are propped up by a U.S. electric grid that is considered the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century(Offsite link). But this infrastructure is already stretched to the limit with current demands, and there is no telling what else the next century will bring.

Carl Imhoff, leader of power grid research at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and co-chair of DOE’s Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium(Offsite link), testified on grid modernization before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on March 14, 2017. He was one of seven witnesses who provided testimony on opportunities to improve American energy infrastructure.

Importance, Trends, and Opportunities

Imhoff briefly described the federal role in grid modernization efforts, primarily through investments in high-risk/high-reward research to address national challenges, and working in collaboration with industry to move science and technology advances beyond the laboratory. He then emphasized the following points in his remarks:

The electric sector is fundamental to a secure, robust and vibrant energy infrastructure, and is comprised of assets beyond concrete and steel. Utilities rely increasingly on major control centers to coordinate and operate the power system, requiring substantial investment in software systems, communications and controls.

Major forces are changing the face of the electricity infrastructure and current business models. Plans for energy infrastructure modernization must target a significantly different electric infrastructure instead of the current system design and concepts. Key trends include:

  • the availability of low-cost natural gas;
  • distributed energy resources that result in variable power generation;
  • the digital explosion of new smart-grid technologies and concepts operating at the “grid edge”;
  • extreme weather events that cause billions of dollars in physical and economic damages;
  • risks from cyber-attack.

Grid modernization should leverage technology innovation and public-private partnerships. To enhance the energy infrastructure, planning should:

  • Account for interdependencies across multiple critical infrastructures, such as electric, natural gas, communications, water, emergency response etc.
  • Include “grid flexibility” to help the system adapt to variable generation, requirements for frequency or voltage support, etc.
  • Leverage successful results from recent public-private demonstrations of distribution system advances to jumpstart electric infrastructure modernization that will directly improve consumer service and add quality jobs to the economy. These advances include distribution automation, advanced metering, conservation voltage reduction, and use of Distribution Management System software control systems.
  • Use emerging high performance planning and risk assessment tools to augment current practices to mitigate risks from system threats.
  • Consider using public/private partnerships to conduct infrastructure pilots at the regional level. These pilots can rapidly validate the emerging new modernization concepts and tools emerging from industry, the DOE research portfolio and elsewhere.

A lively question and answer session followed the panelists’ remarks. A video and copies of all the written testimonies are available on the hearing website(Offsite link).

Key Capabilities


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.