Converging toward solutions to grand challenges
A hypothetical, space weather–induced power grid catastrophe served as a practice case for building unity and collaborative skills among disparate communities to address a major global hazard.
Electrical power grids, on which we all depend, comprise numerous interconnected components, including generators, transformers, and transmission and distribution lines, among others, as well as the operating processes required to keep these components functioning. These massive and truly complex systems function at the whim of myriad natural forces and the vicissitudes of human behavior that can reduce grid reliability or knock out operation altogether. Creating a power grid that is resilient to these forces is a national-scale societal challenge, one that cannot be addressed by a single sector or discipline.
Meeting this and other grand, sociotechnical challenges requires convergence, the merging of innovative ideas, approaches, and technologies from a wide range of sectors and expertise. With convergence comes a new spectrum of challenges involving how we work across disciplinary lines, collaborate meaningfully in large groups, and develop healthy—meaning open, participatory, and resilient—connections among diverse stakeholders. Indeed, tackling the problems we face as a society, whether global pandemics or climate change or complex systems, requires new levels of cooperation, facilitation, and synthesis.
The Convergence Hub for the Exploration of Space Science (CHESS) is a research project working to develop best practices for convergence research in the context of studying and predicting space weather. Recently, members of the CHESS team and others held a three-part workshop involving a simulated extreme space weather storm with impacts on power grid resilience and socioeconomic conditions, activities designed to highlight knowledge gaps apparent from the simulation, and group work to develop potential solutions to the gaps identified. In the workshop, we also learned actionable lessons for developing healthy gatherings and relationships among participants spanning a range of disciplines.
An Essential but Vulnerable System
Innumerable factors can affect the current flowing through a power grid, from weather to details of the grid’s operation to user demands on the system. The supply of current must be balanced at all times with demand, and this balancing is accomplished by maintaining a stable system frequency for the alternating current and voltages produced by synchronized generators. Keeping the frequency close to 60 hertz—the nominal alternating current frequency in the United States—is critical to coordinating a national-scale grid, keeping power plants online, and preventing widespread blackouts.
The failure of Texas’s power grid in February 2021 reawakened the world to the precarity of power grids, whose complexity is only growing.
In February 2021, three major winter storms hit Texas within a span of 2 weeks. As the second storm descended, bringing with it record-low temperatures, Texas’s power grid failed. In the middle of the night, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) declared an Energy Emergency Alert Level 3—the most severe level—as officials nervously watched the frequency of Texas’s power grid drop below the narrow 60-hertz band. The resulting blackouts affected millions of Texans for several days as freezing temperatures settled in and yet another storm approached.
This event reawakened the world to the precarity of power grids, whose complexity is only growing as new power sources and technologies are incorporated and their interconnectedness, digitization, and dependencies on weather and the changing climate increase. Operators use vast sets of sensors and tools to observe, control, and operate electrical grids, yet grid resilience against natural and human-induced hazards is anything but guaranteed.
Against this foreground of earthly challenges for power grids, there is another continual hazard: the constant flow of solar plasma and energy known as space weather, which alters Earth’s space environment and that can adversely affect human infrastructure. Space weather, acting on its own, can produce massive geomagnetic storms that result in power fluctuations and blackouts. It can also compound the effects of other threats, such as extreme temperatures, combining to push the power grid beyond critical thresholds.
As we head toward another solar maximum and the Sun’s activity ramps up, there is growing awareness again of the imminent threat to power grids from space weather, which could have global repercussions. According to the 2020 U.K. National Risk Register, the annual likelihood of extreme (i.e., “reasonable worst case scenario”) consequences of space weather occurring is similar to that of “high consequence infectious disease outbreaks.”
Progress toward a more resilient power grid is precluded by artificial separations among experts in relevant disciplines. To reimagine grid resilience, traditionally disparate communities must be connected and data from diverse fields must be open and broadly usable.
Since 2019, CHESS has been using a transdisciplinary approach to understanding and improving grid resilience and to building an open knowledge network (OKN) to achieve it. OKNs enable integration of vast amounts of diverse, publicly accessible data in service of a broad range of uses across society. In April 2022, the CHESS team, in cooperation with others in the convergent “Sun-to-power-grid” community, took the next step in growing the OKN with a workshop that centered community participation and collaboration.
Simulating a Grid Catastrophe
This approach provided a low-risk, cost-effective environment in which to bring together researchers, decisionmakers, and operators to assess preparedness for hazards posed by space weather to the U.S. electrical power grid.
Our workshop was organized into three stages, the first involving participants playing out a space weather simulation game. This approach provided a low-risk, cost-effective environment in which to bring together researchers, decisionmakers, and operators to assess preparedness for hazards posed by space weather to the U.S. electrical power grid.
To bring the imagined world and scenario in the simulation to life, we consulted the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center. This organization has been running North America’s largest tabletop power grid security exercise, GridEx, biennially for more than a decade. We followed its design of mapping out our simulated scenario into three phases and an epilogue. The phases included observation of a large solar event days ahead of its arrival at Earth, communication and grid posturing hours ahead of arrival, and the onset of severe space weather impacts on Earth. The epilogue considered ongoing disturbances to the power grid and society 18 hours after onset.
High-tension power transmission lines stretch across part of North Texas. The failure of Texas’s electrical power grid in February 2021 demonstrated the precarity of these systems, which are growing more complex and facing increased hazards from weather and climate change on Earth, as well as from the effects of space weather. Credit: David R. Tribble/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
To instigate our simulation, we needed to create extreme yet geophysically realistic space weather conditions that participants had not seen before. We turned to a massive eruption from the Sun on 23 July 2012 that narrowly missed Earth but that struck a solar wind monitoring spacecraft in interplanetary space. We reconstructed solar wind time series during that event from the available data, used them to drive three of the main geospace models used by the space weather community, and incorporated Earth conductivity models to calculate the resulting electric field at Earth’s surface. Then we worked with the Electric Power Research Institute to determine how the simulated geoelectric field would affect currents induced on a realistic power grid network.
We simulated the entire northeastern United States, but focused on impacts to the Washington, D.C., area, where the workshop was held. Finally, in what we believe was a significant first for such a system-wide simulation, we used U.S. Department of Homeland Security data to tie in business and population models and state-of-the-art interactive visualizations to understand the socioeconomic impacts of the event.
Social Science Concepts Inform Interactions
The simulation game became a community-wide exercise to run models and trace lines of communication among participants, across both individuals and institutions, representing a complete cross section of the Sun-to-power-grid information flow. Institutions involved included the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, Department of Energy, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, NERC, U.S. Geological Survey, NOAA, several national space weather programs, and numerous academic and private institutions. While this event focused on the resilience of the power grid to space weather, the lessons learned in convening a group to cultivate multidisciplinary understanding and fluid exchange across domains are relevant in any effort to build resilience in complex systems.
In designing workshops, conferences, and other meetings, physical scientists and engineers can learn much from social science, psychology, and team science research looking into creating more generative and healthy exchanges [National Research Council, 2015].
We used the simulation game as a “boundary object,” a tool that facilitates cross-disciplinary communication among disparate communities, allowing them to collaborate on a common task and develop a shared language.
We used the simulation game as a “boundary object,” a tool that facilitates cross-disciplinary communication among disparate communities, allowing them to collaborate on a common task and develop a shared language [Star and Griesemer, 1989; Lee, 2007; Wenger, 1998]. The game served to structure interactions and to enhance connections and information exchange, or “idea flow” [Pentland, 2015], among participants beyond what would have been possible through traditional presentation formats. These interactions involved interleaved exploration (brainstorming) and engagement (coordinating) activities.
Workshop participants were sequentially presented with a narrative for each simulation phase, along with data visualizations, model outputs, and other elements to bring the scenario to life (e.g., news headlines, social media, etc.). After each phase was presented, they convened separately in four discussion groups to work through a list of prompts carefully designed to facilitate a common group effort and shared language. These prompts included, for example, questions about uncertainties in space weather models and how quickly model updates are produced and shared, and about how decisions by grid operators to take action in light of risks to power supplies are coordinated.
In addition to the predetermined prompts, group leaders also facilitated open-ended discussion to further promote idea flow and connections among participants. And following each discussion session, group leaders wrote up summaries of key ideas, questions, and recommendations to share and integrate with those of other groups.
Synthesizing and Prototyping
Following the simulation game, the final two stages of the workshop involved sensemaking and system building, which together were intended to synthesize insights and research, as well as development gaps identified during the simulation, and to create recommendations for researchers and policymakers.
Led by applied complexity scientists and philosophers, the groups used sensemaking techniques to reflect on the simulation game. Specifically, we used What? So What? Now What?, a critical reflection model designed to help groups assess the facts of what happened during a shared experience, make sense of what was learned and understand implications of the experience, and propose goals or solutions to problems. In our case, the exercise helped participants more clearly understand each other’s roles and perspectives, and it revealed numerous insights. For example, space weather researchers learned how power grid operators determine grid reliability as well as what space weather information is most useful to operators in helping protect the grid during a real event.
We teamed domain scientists, engineers, and data scientists to develop and test rapid “prototype” solutions to address identified research and development gaps.
Finally, we put the new understanding into practice, holding a full day of system building that teamed domain scientists, engineers, and data scientists in hackathon-like activities. The purpose was for the groups to develop and test rapid “prototype” solutions to address identified research and development gaps, especially with respect to the data and information systems that are needed but lacking. For example, there is a need to better understand the physical mechanism driving geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) and to model this process using real and synthetic data. The prototyped recommendation was to invite space weather researchers to help create software used to analyze power grid data, such as NERC’s GIC database, so that the analysis better connects space weather and power grid data.
Participants also recognized the risk to the power grid from potentially compounding events, indicating a need to be able to overlay various hazard maps to better visualize and assess compound risk. The solution that emerged from this gap is to develop data integration systems (e.g., knowledge graphs) that allow research and information about multiple hazards—space weather, floods, and wildfires, for example—to be integrated and overlain.
Facilitation Is Essential
The role of facilitation—too often underappreciated—in solving complex challenges that society faces, including power grid resilience, is becoming ever more essential.
The increasingly complex challenges that society faces, including power grid resilience, require wider collaboration and clearer communication among scientists, engineers, and many others. So the role of facilitation—too often underappreciated—in solving these challenges is becoming ever more essential, requiring that the scientific and engineering communities learn, apply, and value facilitation skills.
Before, during, and after the workshop, we focused on successful facilitation as a cornerstone of the effort. In addition to effective time management, meeting scheduling, and communication support, numerous qualities are needed to support convergence research. Primary among them are the following: understanding and capability with the mediums of exchange that different communities use (i.e., beyond in-person interaction), understanding information flows within a group (i.e., the network of relationships), demonstrating and supporting emotional intelligence to increase mutual understanding, creating safe and inclusive environments, and adapting to changing conditions.
Meaningful and generative social interactions require facilitation across many small transactions between individuals [Pentland, 2015]. This effort begins with promoting relationships and helping establish common vocabulary among individuals from different communities—which is a long process. We needed participants to develop rapport and trust with each other prior to the 3-day workshop, so that our limited time together in person could be used more efficiently. To that end, we held a preworkshop “microlab” to introduce participants to one another and allow them to identify commonalities in their expectations for the event. We also created numerous communication channels for them, including through live virtual activities and through unstructured asynchronous online collaboration (e.g., via Slack and Discord), to support different preferences for interaction.
These activities were mirrored during our in-person event, which included both the structured interactions and unstructured discussions to create more diverse exchanges and, ultimately, denser collaborative networks across scales (i.e., individuals, small groups, the whole community).
Conversations among workshop participants via the platforms set up before the meeting have also continued beyond the workshop. But facilitating further exchange and enhanced connections within and outside the workshop cohort requires more sophisticated digital spaces. To that end, we created an open knowledge commons to continue fostering relationships [McGranaghan et al., 2021], and we suggest that this commons should be a focus for the scientific community to sustain and amplify progress toward improving grid resilience.
The collective value of these facilitation efforts is exemplified by the prototype solutions that emerged from the workshop as products of close, trusted collaboration across groups, as well as by the strong, ongoing discussions among participants and between participants and other stakeholders and groups.
A Convergence of Many Voices
Integrating social science techniques, emphasizing synthesis activities, and practicing effective facilitation will help amplify progress toward solutions.
We recognize that other communities of experts and stakeholders are pursuing similar goals with respect to power grid resilience. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Power and Energy Society, for example, provides forums for information sharing about technology development in the electric power industry, developing relevant standards, and educating experts and the public. Following our ethos of openness and convergence, we believe that all efforts and voices are important in solving this grand challenge and that progress will come from cooperative, not competitive, attitudes. We also believe that integrating social science techniques, emphasizing synthesis activities, and practicing effective facilitation will help stakeholders and experts across multiple communities better connect and will amplify progress toward solutions.
Scientists and engineers must value the skills of organizing and facilitating interactions and connections. These are traditionally “silent” skills that go unrecognized and undervalued in individuals, yet they are inextricably linked to the success of efforts to advance research and solutions. No longer are our scientific and engineering challenges—and indeed the most significant societal challenges—solvable without them.