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Technology Corridor

Reliability demands will drive automation investments.
Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 2003

Moreover, embedded processors within the FACTS devices form a distributed computing system that can make coordinated, real-time adjustments to power flows, preventing cascade failures in the event of a transmission overload.

FACTS technology has existed for more than a decade, but few utilities have installed FACTS to date, largely due to the technology's high cost. "We are now working on the third generation of FACTS, to make it smaller, more cost-effective, and faster, using new and different materials," Dow says.

EPRI and others are also developing advanced computer simulation and modeling systems that would help operators to anticipate and assess grid problems and prescribe solutions. "You have to be able to model the system in real time so you can get the data you need to make decisions," Dow says. "Fast simulation is a key part of making the system work."

Indeed, telephone transcriptions released by the House Energy & Commerce Committee revealed that system operators-trying to manage a crisis developing before their eyes-could only guess about the efficacy and possible side effects of the remedies that were available to them on Aug. 14.

"Overall, I can't get a big picture of what's going on," said Don Hunter of the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO), during a phone call with a First Energy operator. Later, with a Detroit Edison official, Hunter said, "We're kind of taking it as it comes right now. We don't have a lot of information."

EPRI's proposed technology upgrades would provide grid operators with analytic capabilities and real-time controls that, theoretically, could help them prevent a cascade failure like the one that occurred on Aug. 14.

However, as the true causes of the blackout become better understood, the role of advanced information technologies likely will come under close scrutiny. After all, while information systems allowed controllers to recover the system quickly, they also created problems of their own while the blackout was occurring.

"Our computer is giving us fits," said Jerry Snickey, a First Energy operator, during a phone conversation with MISO during the blackout. "We don't even know the status of some of the stuff around us."

First Energy's chairman and CEO, H. Peter Burg, acknowledged during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing that the company had problems with its energy management system, which uses SCADA information to provide operators with a view of what's happening on the grid. Further, Joseph L. Welch, chairman of International Transmission Co. in Michigan, testified that communications systems failed to give operators the information they needed during the crisis.

"There were no records or reports of the line outages which were so critical to this event," he said.

If such vital systems can fail to perform at the most important times, the industry might logically be reticent to place its eggs in an even bigger automation basket.

See You in 2025

In fairness, EPRI's framework for the future represents a long-term plan for the power grid, not a short-term fix. "That vision, fully integrated, will take 20 to 25 years to realize," Dow says.

"It is a very big vision.