Technology Corridor

Virtual reality comes of age in the power industry.
Virtual reality comes of age in the power industry.
Fortnightly Magazine - July 1 2003

Virtual reality comes of age in the power industry.

Technological breakthroughs in power generation, pollution control, waste management, renewable resource applications, and many similar areas are at the forefront of advances in developing, managing, and delivering public utility products. However, technology that is more often associated with computer games and Hollywood blockbusters is taking hold in the industry, and its impact may well be as great as any of the more well known technologies.

Virtual reality, or as many people prefer to call it, visual simulation (VizSim), is the use of computers to create interactive simulations that run in real time and are represented by reactive, 3-D graphics. Doom and John Madden Football are two popular games that make use of VizSim to create a virtual 3-D world in which players do their best to wreak havoc. The same technology that makes those games so engrossing is being applied to management and operations in public utilities, exploration of energy sources, and security training in many industries .

VizSim in the Public Utilities Business

Public utilities management tends to stay away from flashy, unproven technology, and though there were many demonstrations of potential utility applications of VizSim in the mid to late '90s, very few actually got a foothold in the industry. However, as the technology matured, and as developers realized that flashiness is trumped by return on investment, practical applications gained acceptance.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Consolidated Edison (ConEd) has been developing and testing the Power Network Visualization System (PNVS, or PowerViz) in cooperation with software developer AVS. PNVS addresses a common problem: Large amounts of real-time data regarding the health of the distribution network, presented by a variety of programs and systems, are difficult to correlate and act upon quickly and surely.

Currently undergoing pre-rollout testing in New York City, PNVS gathers data from a multitude of sources. This data describes the flow of power through ConEd's distribution system in New York City and provides real-time status information in a graphic display that enable operators to see much more than before. This makes it possible for them to react to problems much faster than they could previously.

A major goal of the PNVS system was to preserve ConEd's significant investments in applications development, including load-flow simulation. ConEd wanted to integrate its best applications into a single user interface. The solution was to use AVS's OpenViz product to integrate content, create better workflow, and innovate the user experience. The new system integrates multiple data sources into a single presentation, without getting rid of the underlying application.

A ConEd network manager using the PNVS system sees a map of Manhattan, which displays real-time data.

If needed, he can switch into projection mode, where possible future outcomes are shown. Steve Sukman, CEO of AVS explained, "PowerViz for ConEd is really a portal. The user can click on part of the map and drill down to a level of greater detail, or he can launch a legacy app that manages the data related to his specific area of interest.

"This combination of Internet-based, low-cost