Service to the 9's? Power Quality in a Tech-Wreck World
Why it's just as important for the old economy.
Mention "power quality" and the mind conjures up visions of tech hotels stuffed with Internet servers running 24/7, retrofitted into inner city industrial warehouses-buildings sturdy enough to forgive the heavy installation of custom power supply equipment and racks of batteries. Or perhaps Silicon Valley.
"I've been in meetings with Intel where they say, just think of me as a black box and fix my power," says Ashok Sundaram, a product manager at EPRI in Palo Alto, California (also known as the Electric Power Research Institute). But for EPRI, the notion of power quality transcends any industry. It encompasses the entire electric grid.
"If you have a large customer like an Intel or a Motorola," Sundaram explains, "sometimes the processes are so large that there is no real way to install a solution on the customer side of the meter."
In that case, a network solution might seem more economical, with the electric utility making the required investment in the distribution grid, rather than on-site at the customer premises. But the problem really begins before that.
"A lot of homework has to be done," says Sundaram. "Not until you define the base level of power service can you even begin to talk about defining premium power, or start building premium parks. And the base level can vary by geographic area. California's base level of power quality is different than Florida, for instance, where they have all those thunderstorms. First, characterize what power quality you already have. Because setting a base level of power quality will set a base level for cost."
And so power quality today isn't just for the digital age. It's for pulp and paper and plastic bags, textile mills and light bulb filaments, aluminum rails and Coleman coolers-any ordinary manufacturer that employs a continuous process.
"We don't anticipate any black box solutions for power quality," adds Bill Winnerling, power quality expert at EPRI. "Issues continue to emerge. As we solve one problem, we see another. Sure, you can buy some remedies off-the-shelf. You can use a surge suppressor for your computer," he concedes.
"But not every industrial plant is going to be willing to pay for nine nines of reliability (assurance of service 99.9999999 percent of the time), which is what is required by some of these Internet servers and tech hotels." By contrast, electric utilities traditionally have assured reliability of service to four nines-only 99.99 percent of the time.
"The demands of the digital economy may force us to have an improved distribution system, but it's got to be done incrementally."
Helping Customers On Site
Power quality problems are nothing new. Ken Hall, manager of distribution (the utility distribution sector) at the Edison Electric Institute, notes that power grid disturbances long have been seen in rural areas, where a neighbor's water pump can upset the local grid, given the lack of load density.
"Sometimes the customer's worst enemy is the other customer down the road," he adds. "And 'nearby' is a relative term. When a large motor switches on