Five Questions with DOE’s Bruce Walker on the Grid of the Future

Part of a series of insights from leading smart-grid, clean-energy, and utility experts speaking at gridCONNEXT. Questions asked by Clean Edge managing director, author, and gridCONNEXT co-chair Ron Pernick.

Ron Pernick: Based on your extensive utility operations experience, what do you believe will be the most pressing issues facing grid operators over the next three to five years?

Walker: Cyber and physical security will continue to be a challenge for the grid, due in large part to the fact that the system was not originally designed with either in mind. The Office of Electricity (OE) is working to develop a near-term actionable operational strategy to mitigate and eliminate these threats through utilization of technology, design modifications, and operational considerations.  Similarly, the generation mix of years past is not the one we have today or will have in the coming years. It is imperative that as distributed energy resources (DER) and variable energy resources (VER) are added to the system, national security is not compromised.

Additionally, grid operators are faced with making difficult decisions regarding new infrastructure investments. With limited resources, the increased cyber and physical threats, added DER and VER, and ironically, an abundance of data, the necessity to prioritize investments will be key. Add in the need to incorporate long term resilience to existing and new infrastructure and the task can seem quite daunting. 

Pernick: As the pace of grid modernization accelerates at the state level, what is your perspective on the role the Department of Energy (DOE) can play to improve the effectiveness of these regional efforts?

Walker:  The Department’s Grid Modernization Initiative (GMI) is one of our primary efforts in working toward long-term strategic and foundational R&D. The GMI focuses on developing new architectural concepts, tools, and technologies that will better measure, analyze, predict, and protect the grid, as well as enable the institutional conditions that allow for rapid development and widespread adoption of these tools and technologies. Originally consisting of OE and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the GMI has expanded to also include the Office of Fossil Energy; the Office of Nuclear Energy; and the newly-created Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response, to ensure a coordinated and comprehensive approach to R&D.

Just a few weeks ago, DOE announced our latest R&D funding opportunity. The Department anticipates providing $25 million in funding for projects in five research areas: cybersecure communications, cybersecurity for the ONG environment, redesign for cyber-resilient architecture for the ONG and ESCC subsectors, cybersecure cloud-based technologies in the operation technology environment, and innovative technologies that enhance cybersecurity in the energy sector. The projects selected, which can include state, local, and tribal governments, will continue the research needed to increase the resilience and reliability of our energy subsectors. 

Pernick: What role should the federal government be playing to ensure adequate and timely investments in building a 21st century grid?

Walker:  There’s no doubt investments need to be made—it comes down to the who, what, where, why, when, and how. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation came out with their 2018 Summer Reliability Assessment last week. Their key findings foreshadow many of the energy infrastructure investments the grid will require in the near-term. 

Here is where our North American Grid Modeling we’ve begun really comes in to play. By incorporating all relevant assets of the integrated energy grid across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, we’ll be able to identify potential infrastructure investments that will improve resiliency and mitigate risks associated with energy systems interdependencies.

Pernick: Solar and wind power are now competitive from a levelized-cost-of-energy perspective in most regions. Add in energy storage, and renewables are poised to continue to be a central focus of new capacity additions, both in the U.S. and globally. How does this recent trend impact the priorities within your programs at the Department of Energy?

Walker:  We believe our national security necessitates an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy generation, which certainly includes both VER and DER. Just last year, as part of DOE’s Grid Modernization Initiative, we announced funding of up to $32 million to the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium and their partners to advance resilient distribution systems, focusing on the integration of DER, advanced controls, grid architecture, and emerging grid technologies. 

Secretary Perry himself has called storage the “holy grail” of energy. One of my priorities at OE is the pursuit of megawatt scale grid storage.  We want to pursue the advancement of storage capable of providing reactive and real power control for bulk and distribution power systems. By investigating and integrating the latest technologies, OE will develop a strategic approach to rapidly progressing megawatt scale storage which will provide added resiliency and reliability to our Nation’s grid.    

Pernick: At gridCONNEXT 2017 you provided an update on your efforts in Puerto Rico and described opportunities for modernizing their grid. What lessons have you learned since then, and how does the DOE plan to leverage these lessons for its resiliency activities across the U.S.?

Walker:  We currently provide technical assistance to the Puerto Rico government as they decide on next steps for their energy infrastructure.  We’re also testing some of the cutting-edge technology we’ve developed at the National Laboratories.  And as the territory looks at issues such as the use of microgrids, the location of generation, and incorporating future distributed energy resources into their system, investing in resilient infrastructure will be paramount.

The work that our office is doing in Puerto Rico will help inform our efforts in modeling the grid. In partnership with the National Labs and stakeholders in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, we want to develop an integrated reliability and resiliency model which will demonstrate the interdependencies of various energy systems throughout North America. This will help us see the sequence of events that create risk across critical infrastructure sectors, as well as identify key critical infrastructure interdependencies.

Bruce Walker is Assistant Secretary for the Office of Electricity (OE) and Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response (CESER) at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

He was a panelist at gridCONNEXT 2017 in Washington, D.C. The conference provides an unprecedented opportunity for utilities, policymakers, regulators, investors, businesses, service providers, end-users, and other stakeholders to explore policies and share best practices on building a modern 21st century grid. For more information, visit