What are Resilient Distribution Systems?

In an electrical grid, the “distribution system” refers to the low- and medium-voltage power lines, service transformers, and other equipment that deliver electricity to your home—it is the last stop before electricity is consumed. A resilient distribution system utilizes local resources such as customer-owned solar photovoltaics (PV) and battery storage to quickly reconfigure power flows and recover electricity services during disturbance events. In other words, it is able to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions to withstand and rapidly recover from disturbances like cyberattacks, accidents, or weather events.

In a resilient distribution system, PV and storage are either located in front of or behind the meter. “In front of the meter” means the asset is managed by the utility. This might occur at large, utility-scale installations that serve the grid as a whole, or in smaller community microgrids that can disconnect from the main grid and operate autonomously. “Behind the meter” means the asset is owned and managed by residential or commercial customers, though these are connected to distribution system and the energy they generate and store can be fed back into the grid to provide services to other customers. Learn more about solar energy systems integration and microgrids.

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When an unexpected outage occurred at NREL, staff scientists restarted power with the tools they know best—a solar PV array, a wind turbine, and a battery storage system. Their quick recovery demonstrated that 100% renewable operation is reliable—even with unsophisticated controls and zero device communications—and can be reproduced on larger-scale systems.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Why are Resilient Distribution Systems Important?

PV and storage, along with microgrids, are valuable resources for helping grid managers reduce, absorb, and recover from power outages. Wildfires, storms, and cyberattacks can cause widespread power outages and result in major economic losses. Nearly every part of our economy is dependent on electricity in some way, so restoring power quickly is a top priority for any community. Additionally, lives are at stake when power goes out: it’s important for hospitals and medical facilities to maintain their electric supply in order to prevent life-saving technologies from shutting down.

Resilient distribution systems could be a means of minimizing the societal and financial impacts of power outages associated with emergencies, natural disasters, and other unexpected events, while benefitting communities during normal operations. PV and storage can form community microgrids at moment’s notice and readily deliver solar and stored electricity to provide much needed resilience to power systems. Developing these resilient distribution systems will help achieve the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO)’s goals of improving the ability of solar energy to support the reliability and resilience of the country’s electric grid. Learn more about SETO’s goals.

SETO Research in Resilient Distribution Systems

Projects in this topic area are developing new technologies and solutions to help the grid withstand disruptions and continually provide electricity to customers. All projects in this topic consider various cyber and physical hazards to ensure the continuity of electric power service and/or faster service recovery. Several of SETO’s funding programs include projects that focus on resilient distribution systems:

To view specific resilient distribution systems projects, search the Solar Energy Research Database.

Additional Resources

Learn more about systems integration research, other solar energy research in SETO, and current and former funding programs.