Insight by Amentum

New energy era demands lots of technology and engineering

Energy has become an important technology and policy topic. However utilities in the United States generate electrical power, the nation needs a robust infrastructure on which to make and distribute electricity.

The energy infrastructure at the moment “is somewhat vulnerable,” said Jim Blankenhorn, the environment and security business line manager at Amentum. He urged planners to think about the electrical infrastructure comprehensively, and not only about the wiring grid.

“We need to talk about the entire value chain,” Blankenhorn said. “We start with the mining and the drilling operations. We go through the fuel fabrication and conditioning. We go through the power generation, storage, transmission and ultimately to the end user, the customer.”

He noted that the American Society of Civil Engineers gives barely-passing grades to large parts of the U.S energy infrastructure.

“The reason for that is because some components have reached their 50 year design life,” Blankenhorn said. The aging has made the infrastructure vulnerable to both physical failure and cybersecurity failure, as well as to its inability to meet demand.

This condition occurs, Blankenhorn said, as federal policy, in accordance with Paris Accords, pursues a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

“So all of our federal agencies now have developed strategic implementation plans, goals and objectives, “Blankenhorn said. “That’s driving technology development in sustainable, renewable energy sources.” Therefore engineering and development must take place across the generating sources – including natural gas, new-generation nuclear reactors, wind, solar and even liquid hydrogen – and across the elements of the transmission grid.

In all cases, Blankenhorn said, engineering and technology development must aim for certain basics required of the energy infrastructure, regardless of generating source.

“We talk about affordability, sustainability, dependability and redundancy,” Blankenhorn said. “We also talk about reliability and resilience.”

Of those last two characteristics, Blankenhorn added, “When we’re talking about reliability, what we’re really talking about is the ability of the system to meet the demand on call. When we talk about resiliency, we’re talking about the system’s ability to weather or survive process upsets and interruption.” With increasing intelligence engineered into energy systems, Blankenhorn said, resiliency must include resistance to cyber attacks.

Multi-front effort

Blankenhorn cited development work on a variety of energy infrastructure fronts; for example, battery storage and low-loss transmission lines. Other examples:

  • Nuclear fusion, demonstrated earlier this year in a laboratory setting, may be decades off. Meanwhile, Blankenhorn said, new forms of fission reactors have emerged. In some cases, they’re small enough to fit in a truck trailer, and they use fuel and reactor processes safer than those of traditional reactors.“Instead of building the large nuclear reactors that we’ve seen in the past, we’re looking at these more scalable, flexible, small modular reactors that can provide power on demand to specific areas,” Blankenhorn said.
  • Hydrogen fuel presents another area of development. Blankenhorn said the recent legislation provides incentives for equipping the traditional power generation infrastructure with technology to produce hydrogen by electrolyzing water. At the same time, hydrogen needs the infrastructure for distribution and storage, including outlets for individual vehicles powered by hydrogen.
  • Micro grids, still another area of intense development. Blankenhorn pointed out that the military is pursuing a strategy of energy independence for its installations.

“One of their solutions to address reliability and resilience is to create micro grids,” he said. “They create unique infrastructure so that they can ensure uninterrupted power supplies to perform critical missions.”

Blankenhorn added, “All of that comes at a pretty high cost. We need investment strategies. We need offsets and subsidies at least during the transition phase” to new energy sources. Much of that funding is available from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

Fusion, nuclear, better wind and solar – they’re all coming to bolster the resilience of the nation’s energy infrastructure. And, Blankenhorn said, it will take industry and government working together to bring it all about.

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