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Has the Aug. 14 blackout finally made it more than a pipe dream?
Former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson ticked off a whole lot of people in the industry when he pronounced the United States a superpower with "a Third World electricity grid."
Yet while debate continues about the causes of the Northeast blackout, there's no arguing that the majority of transmission and distribution in this country is controlled via mechanical technology largely developed in the 1950s.
To many outside the electricity industry, using 50 year-old technology to distribute vital electricity sounds ludicrous. After all, the telecommunications industry made the switch from analog to digital networks in the 1990s, creating smart systems that can handle many system malfunctions without human intervention.
In the wake of the Northeast blackout, the idea of a similar, or even better, update of grid technology has gained new currency. And that's something that makes Clark Gellings, vice president of the Electricity Innovation Institute (E2I), pretty happy.
Gellings and his colleagues have been pushing the industry to move toward a smart, self-healing grid for the last couple years (see Figure 1). E2I, along with the Electric Power Research Institute, with which it is affiliated, formed the Consortium for Electric Infrastructure to Support a Digital Society (CEIDS) in May 2001, to provide a strategic framework for upgrading the electricity systems, particularly the transmission and distribution system.
CEIDS was born at the tail end of the dot-conomy boom, driven by concern that an industry responsible for rolling blackouts in tech-heavy California was ill-prepared to serve a burgeoning digital economy. Indeed, experts peg the cost to the U.S. business sector for power outages and power quality disturbances at somewhere between $119 billion and $188 billion annually (see Figure 2, p. 55)-and that doesn't count the costs to utilities to recover from outages.
But what exactly is a smart grid?
First and foremost, says Gellings, a smart grid is a true real-time system that collects a great deal of information on the state of the grid, and is able to take that data and do something with it, dynamically.
"People say that what we have now is real time, but it isn't," Gellings says. He points out that seconds go by before grid status information is updated on current systems. "That's not good enough," he argues. And often, the time stamps on various systems are not correct, as the blackout investigators have found.
Even if the time stamps are correct, to create the CEIDS vision, the grid needs more sensors that are integrated with a communications system. That way, Gellings says, operators can look at more points more quickly on the grid.
While some newly released sensors are rather inexpensive, and can perform some useful measurements on current power system conditions, Gellings faults them for their lack of time-stamp information.
Currently, there are some sensors that work fast enough and have the right time stamps to satisfy Gellings, but the cost can be prohibitive, he says. For example, transformer gas sensor systems do the job, but with a price