Keeping the Lights On

May 3, 2018


GW Pinpoint; Keeping the Lights On; photo of Professor in a lab

Dr. Payman Dehghanian

The blackout that hit parts of the northeastern U.S. and Ontario, Canada, in August 2003 affected an estimated 55 million people, most of whom lost power for several hours or more.

At the time, Dr. Payman Dehghanian was a high school student in Iran. Although he clearly did not personally experience the effects of the blackout, he followed the news about it closely and ended up deciding to study power systems engineering partly as a result of seeing the havoc the blackout wreaked.

Now a new assistant professor at SEAS, Dr. Dehghanian studies power system resilience in the face of extreme weather conditions or cyberattacks that can compromise national security.

“We didn’t see such phenomena before as frequently as we do now,” states Dr. Dehghanian. “In recent years, several catastrophic, extreme weather conditions happened, resulting in massive electricity outages. And regarding cyberattacks, people were thinking about them as a purely academic and theoretical topic until a few years ago, when one actually happened in the capital of Ukraine in December 2015.”

The U.S. will need to learn to better predict and detect these events and to mitigate their consequences if we are to improve our resilience to them. For his part, Dr. Dehghanian is helping by researching both the planning and operations of power systems to create a more resilient and sustainable electric grid.

On the planning side, he investigates how the U.S. can make the most of environmentally friendly, renewable energy resources such as wind and solar power and how to most effectively store the energy from these renewables for use in day-to-day operations and during emergencies. By providing alternative sources of electricity, these energy resources potentially can reduce our vulnerability to extreme weather events or cyberattacks.

On the operations side, he is looking at tools to provide a faster recovery from a destructive event and is using advanced data analytics to try to develop real-time decision making support tools to aid system operators who must respond quickly to the unfolding events.

According to Dr. Dehghanian, primary attention to resilience within the power systems engineering domain focuses on scenarios involving outages of single pieces of equipment or outages of two or three elements. What sets Dr. Dehghanian’s research apart is that he tries to characterize and respond to large-scale, catastrophic outages—like the 2003 blackout—that affect interdependent systems, such as transportation, health care services, communications, and other sectors.

“Everyone’s lives are highly dependent on electricity,” says Dr. Dehghanian. “Although these events are rare, they have a high impact when they happen. So my research is groundbreaking. It aids a proactive preparedness for such events and helps keep the lights on at all times.”