Patricia Hidalgo-Gonzalez Wants to Strengthen the Grid

The United States’ power grid is in trouble. Much of the country’s energy comes from nonrenewable resources that contribute to climate change. And as the resulting climate crisis brings more frequent heat waves, wildfires, and freezes, demand on the grid becomes greater and more erratic. The strain is heavy, but Patricia Hidalgo-Gonzalez has ideas for how to relieve the burden on the grid.

Hidalgo-Gonzalez directs the Renewable Energy and Advanced Mathematics (REAM) lab at UC San Diego. Her work focuses on finding new ways to incorporate more sustainable power into the grid, the kind of research that could create solutions for the blackouts that hit places like California and Texas during extreme temperature changes. “Unfortunately, we are expecting this almost every summer now,” Hidalgo-Gonzalez told attendees at the RE:WIRED Green conference on Wednesday.

To combat this, Hidalgo-Gonzalez created models to study western North America’s power grid amid the uncertainty of climate change. At REAM, her team uses advanced control theory and machine learning to understand grid conditions that maximize sustainable energy sources. In a study the lab published in 2020, she was able to model the optimal way to add more renewable energy generators to the grid in the West in 2045. The model revealed when and where to install new generators, what sort of renewable tech would be best where, and the total cost.

These sorts of models will be vital for grids of the future, but Hidalgo-Gonzalez notes that we’re already seeing progress toward a more resilient grid. California announced plans to ban the sale of gas-powered cars in 2035, and this year’s climate bill should mean more electrified trucks and delivery vans. It’s also possible all the batteries in those electric vehicles could rescue the US power grid. Rooftop solar use has grown significantly, meaning more Americans will be able to sell electricity back to the system. Individuals are moving from becoming consumers to producers, she said.

In the meantime, the public can take action to safeguard the grid. Since renewable energy peaks with sunshine in midday, Hidalgo-Gonzalez recommends shifting energy use to about 11 am to 3 pm whenever possible—perhaps by doing laundry or charging your EV on a new schedule.

Getting people to change their energy usage is tough, but not impossible. For evidence, Hidalgo-Gonzalez points to a heat wave that hit California just two weeks ago. As temperatures rose midday, demand for air conditioning strained the grid. “Many of us got text messages or emails from the system operator or our utilities,” she said. The messages asked people to reduce their demand on electricity between 4 pm and 9 pm. That joint action helped avoid blackouts. “This truly worked,” she said.

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