How tech can protect rural Idaho’s power supply in an emergency

Jason Thomas//July 24, 2023

Idaho power supply

Idaho power supply.

How tech can protect rural Idaho’s power supply in an emergency

Jason Thomas//July 24, 2023

Idaho National Laboratory recently showcased a new portable, self-contained grid system that can enable small communities to maintain critical services during emergencies.

INL’s new Microgrid in a Box was deployed in partnership with the Fall River Electric Cooperative at its hydropower plant in rural Idaho, according to an INL news release. Using newly developed technologies, INL researchers demonstrated how hydropower with advanced controls and use of a mobile microgrid can help small communities maintain critical services during emergencies.

At a ribbon-cutting event, power from the Microgrid in a Box simulated a critical load, while the team showed how the hydropower plant could be used to restore the grid after a blackout in a process called a “blackstart,” the release stated

The new technologies, developed by INL and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office, demonstrate how communities with similar resources can maintain critical services during blackout emergencies.

“There are hundreds of hydropower plants like this one serving small communities across the country,” said Thomas Mosier, INL’s Energy Systems group lead, in the release. “What we’ve demonstrated are new technologies that can enable these communities to use the hydropower resources they already have to restart and maintain stable power to essential services, even during an emergency event.”

What is the Microgrid in a Box? 

The Relocatable Resiliency Alternative Power Improvement Distribution Microgrid in a Box, also known as RAPID MIB, is a portable, self-contained grid system developed by INL engineers in collaboration with private industry and government customers, the release stated. It enables integration and optimization of multiple energy sources — such as hydropower, solar panels, wind turbines, diesel generators or even small nuclear reactors — to ensure a reliable and resilient power supply in remote or off-grid locations, or during emergency situations or power outages.

“Restarting a grid isn’t as simple as flipping a switch,” said Kurt Myers, INL’s Energy and Grid Systems Integration group lead, in the release. “It requires a steady power input that many small utilities alone can’t provide. Combining the tech built in to the Microgrid in a Box with the existing capabilities of the Fall River plant, we’re showing how communities with limited resources can recover and continue to function during an emergency.”

What is a blackstart?

Blackstart refers to the process of restarting and energizing power generation units, transmission lines and distribution systems to restore electricity supply after a blackout or widespread power disruption, the release stated.

INL continues to innovate approaches for efficiently recovering the power grid during these critical situations, the release stated. This includes studying the resiliency and reliability of power systems, designing advanced control and communication systems and testing new approaches to optimize the blackstart process.

Supporting rural utilities

Many rural communities have untapped energy resources that can enable them to maintain services, even during emergency events, the release stated. INL, with support from the Water Power Technologies Office, is proud to partner with utilities like the Fall River Electric Cooperative to demonstrate and test these new technologies.

“Fall River Electric Cooperative is focused on investing in technology that can improve the lives of our owner-members and this partnership with INL is a prime example,” said Fall River CEO Bryan Case in the release. “The Microgrid in a Box test has accelerated our ability to deploy a hydropower and battery system to provide our members with electricity in the event of natural disasters or other local emergencies.”

Through research, analysis, simulations and real-world testing like the blackstart demonstrated at  the event, INL is enhancing the ability of power utilities to recover from blackouts and minimize the impact on communities and critical infrastructure, the release stated.