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IT Roundtable: The Digitized Grid

Data gathering and controllability offer the quickest path to reliability.
Fortnightly Magazine - January 2005

metering what is going in and out at the boundaries, and trying to keep the system normal forever if possible.

When deregulation started to happen, we saw traders doing transactions that didn't always start and end in one control area. A transaction could cut across dozens of control areas, and the IT wasn't capable of keeping up with these transactions. The overhead was enormous, and operators realized they didn't know what traffic was taking place on their systems. This started operators thinking that we needed to elevate coordination of reliability to a higher level than the control-area operator. The control areas still have their functions, but someone should be looking at it from a higher level.

So now we have 18 reliability coordinators in the United States and Canada, covering the entire system. They can see the impact of trades on a wider area. This could go across an entire interconnection, but we don't have the ability to do that yet.

[After 9/11] the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) called us and said they want an overall big-picture view of the health of the U.S. power system. Translating that into the "state" diagram from 30 years ago, they want to know if the system is normal. If not, is there something DHS should do about it? That is one of the goals-to have a higher level view, a big map that shows the health of the interconnected system, in the next 10 to 20 years.

Fortnightly: What new technologies are needed to accomplish that?

Sobajic: We are trying to build a whole domain of applications inspired by biological systems. If you look at the grid as a whole, you can design a system that will absorb and process information about the conditions in the grid to conclude whether some hypothetical deficiency will affect the system. This is the system that exists in most animal species as a common brain function. Fears are innate processes, often generated in a gland, that operate according to the same principles-like an early warning system. With today's designs and technologies, we can develop a rough copy of that.

What it requires is the ability to take an overwhelming amount of operational data and compress it into simple English and visualizations so the operator knows what must be done. During an emergency, it's even more important that the information is simplified in this way, because an operator under stress is even more likely to make mistakes.

We'll be working on this area over the next 10 years.

Fortnightly: This sounds simple, but I'd guess it's not. Is the technical know-how adequate for this task?

Sobajic: From an R&D perspective, it is not a small task. And if you go to the universities and see what areas Ph.D. scientists are specializing in, they are not specializing in visualization and modeling as much as they are advanced mathematics, chemistry, and physics. There are a few, but not enough by far. We need help in that regard.

Fortnightly: What other challenges are you facing?

Sobajic: We are observing a disconnect today