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Q&A with Murali Baggu: Shaping the Future of Grid Modernization

January 31, 2019

Photo of Murali Baggu

Murali Baggu is the laboratory program manager (LPM) for grid integration at NREL. Through his work with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Electricity and Grid Modernization Initiative program, Baggu has been shaping the direction of power systems research at NREL. Baggu sat down with us to discuss his role at NREL and his work on various projects. The following has been edited for length.

Tell me a little about yourself and how you ended up at NREL.

I have been at NREL for about five years now. Before NREL, I worked as lead/senior engineer at General Electric’s (GE) Corporate Research Center where I developed control algorithms for GE’s commercial platforms. As much as I enjoyed maturing products, I found NREL appealing because my research efforts could have a broader industry-wide impact, rather than for just one company. We get to work on broader challenges here, challenges with a bigger perspective.

What kind of research does NREL do in power systems operations and controls?

In the power systems operations and controls area at NREL, there are five broad focus areas:

  1. Distributed control of assets. The goal here is to develop new control paradigms and account for broader parameters like public good, fairness, etc., rather than just focusing on technical or economic efficiency.
  2. Advanced distribution management systems. We’re looking at next-generation operations and control, where we have a lot more flexibility in terms of operating different control devices and systems as well as including more consumer participation in future electric distribution systems.
  3. Microgrid and resilience controls. The main objective in this area is to look at individual microgrids, or interconnected microgrids, and come up with controlled optimization of these microgrids and increase the individual system resilience.
  4. Home energy management. It’s important to really understand how much we can make our behind-the-meter assets, or even distributed assets, more grid-friendly. We are working on each individualized level to understand if these assets can really help in overall operations and control of the system.
  5. Lastly, bulk system operations. In this area, we’re actually looking at bulk grid control with very high-penetrations of distributed energy resources (DER). At the bulk level, we want to know what the impact of DER is on overall system operations and control and how we can really make sure that the system is robust enough, or resilient enough. One example of this research was the recent solar eclipse study, which studied how the 2017 solar eclipse affected the Western Interconnection operations.

What has been the development process for the advanced distribution management system (ADMS) testbed at NREL?

The ADMS testbed represents a leap in ESIF capabilities wherein we are not just evaluating a device or system, but we are evaluating a system of systems in a real-world utility environment. By definition, the ADMS testbed evaluates an ADMS, which controls an entire electric distribution network. In other words, we need to re-create an entire electric grid in the ESIF to replicate a utility-like environment to enable this process. And in a way, it’s not just a laboratory experiment. This is achieved through a mix of both software simulations and hardware emulation.

The tricky part in the initial stages of the project was defining a use case in collaboration with utility partners. This was the first time we were doing something like this. As the project progressed, the idea was to take the lessons learned from the different individual use cases to the broader community and actually see what the next use case would look like. We are now in the position where we have a well-established test bed, and we are ready for the industry to bring their ADMS questions to us. We can really help to de-risk the technology and understand the optimal benefits of different ADMS applications for specific utility needs. So that’s what we’re working on going forward.

Tell me more about your role as a recently appointed laboratory program manager. What kinds of projects will you be involved in?

I’m excited about this new role as an LPM. The main focus areas that I’m looking toward, in terms of increasing the impact of our current portfolio, is identifying new opportunities in the area of national energy resilience. This of paramount importance to the Department of Energy, and we are making sure we align with this vision. We are trying to come up with a bigger energy resilience model for the entire United States so that we can evaluate system resilience for different hypothetical scenarios going forward.

As a precursor to the national resilience modeling, we’ve been working on designing a resilient grid for Puerto Rico. The objective of this work is to support the stakeholder-engaged rebuilding of a resilient and sustainable Puerto Rican energy system. We’ve provided modeling, analysis, and/or recommendations that have resulted in information decision makers can use. I find it exciting that I can contribute to rebuilding Puerto Rico’s grid with much better resilience, after what happened with Hurricane Maria. We’re rebuilding the system so that it can withstand hurricanes going forward while also considering how we can diversify the energy portfolio by adding more solar and wind to the system, and reinforcing the system with a diversified set of fuels using renewable energy.

Another important part of my LPM role is to shape the next portfolio of Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium projects with the broader grid modernization lab teams across the national lab system. The focus for upcoming work will be in the areas of resilience, cybersecurity, sensors, system control, stakeholder engagement, and energy storage to increase system resilience.

What is the Grid Modernization Initiative?

The Grid Modernization Initiative is a crosscutting DOE initiative that allows all the national labs working in the grid space to work together toward a common goal. This collaboration is important because it means we can leverage each other’s strengths, reduce the duplication of efforts, and regularly communicate and stay informed about the latest advances and what’s happening in other labs. This sets the stage for focusing on key foundational areas and forward-looking, program-specific objectives so that everyone knows the overall big picture, advancing the goals of individual DOE offices. It’s not that we haven’t been doing this before. We have, but now we’re now doing it in a more collaborative manner as a large team across the DOE offices and also across the national lab system.

What else are you working on right now that excites you?

Going forward, the key objective for me as an LPM is to make sure we make significant advancements in the grid modernization space, now and far into the future. I want to make sure we reinforce our strengths in this area. Many people don’t realize this, but NREL has close to 150 researchers working in broad areas of grid modernization including new architecture and theory development, multi-energy systems, technology development, system validation/evaluation, resilience planning and operations, and deployment of niche applications, policy, regulation and standards. That’s a significant resource. I want to make sure that we’re recognized as stewards for this work going forward. Looking ahead, I see NREL as a leader when it comes to grid modernization, resilience, the impact of distributed energy resources on systems, and increasing the controllability and flexibility of energy ecosystems.