Regional transmission operators are upgrading their systems to keep the electricity flowing

Martin Garvey, Contributor

January 17, 2004

6 Min Read

he companies that manage the nation's power grid are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on technology upgrades to help avoid a blackout like the one that darkened much of the Northeast last year. New systems deployed recently by PJM Interconnection LLC and Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator Inc. are designed to enhance their ability to see what's happening on the grid so they can react more quickly to potential problems. One of the regional transmission system operators also met last week with the Department of Homeland Security to discuss a pilot project to protect power systems from terrorist attacks and other threats.

PJM and Midwest ISO are greatly expanding the number of points they monitor on the grid and the amount of information they collect for analysis. "When we can see each interconnect, we can really address reliability," says Alain Steven, PJM's VP and chief technical officer.

Six major regional operators oversee much of the nation's power grid, coordinating among utilities, transmission companies, power generators, and others to ensure that electricity is flowing reliably over power lines and through their interconnected systems. The operators also serve as hubs for the exchange of information on the availability of electricity in different parts of the country. PJM, which serves all or parts of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, uses a Web-services portal to let transmission and generation companies submit outage informa- tion and perform reserve checks. It was one of the few grids in the Northeast mostly unaffected by the outage.

Midwest ISO provides services to 42 utility companies in 15 states in the upper Midwest. "We collect, process, add value to, and provide information out to all the utilities we service," says VP and CIO Mike Gahagan. Its applications show if there's enough energy available from a source to warrant transmission and purchase by a utility and the impact that would have on reliability.

But Midwest ISO also shares the blame for the worst blackout in the nation's history, which hit six states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec on Aug. 14, denying power to 60 million people for as long as four days. An interim report released late last year by a joint Canadian-American task force said the problems experienced by Ohio utility FirstEnergy Corp., which triggered the blackout, were compounded because Midwest ISO failed to alert reliability coordinators at other system operators about the potential problems because of an inadequate communications process. It also cited the company's lack of adequate monitoring tools.

With a cold wave now driving record levels of energy consumption in some parts of the country, it's critical that regional operators have in place the monitoring systems that can prevent a reoccurrence. PJM last week unveiled an upgraded "state estimator" system, which uses real-time data and mathematical models to analyze the transmission system on a minute-by-minute basis. The previous system drew data from 22,600 points and developed models for how 11,000 nodes on the power grid should operate. The new system gets data from 46,837 points and models 45,000 locations on the grid. Using that data, a software program analyzes 3,000 potential events that could compromise reliability. PJM also is replacing its static map of the transmission system with monitors capable of displaying any data within the energy-management system and providing interactive views of transmission lines, substations, power plants, and other critical parts of the electrical infrastructure.

Midwest ISO unwrapped its own state estimator on New Year's Eve. It, too, uses mathematical formulas to glean and analyze information from thousands of transmission points and to spit out contingency plans in case of problems. It covers 30,000 network buses, or substations where transmission lines meet, and 87,000 data points that are monitored every 30 seconds. PJM, which has been providing monitoring and energy-interconnection services for 45 years, also is working with Homeland Security on a pilot project they plan to begin in May for improving the security of the national electric grid. "We'll set up a benchmark for securing the grid, looking at the health of the grid and interactions with other utilities like gas and water," Steven says. He declined to provide details.

Technology alone can't prevent blackouts, Midwest ISO's Gahagan notes. He says the monitoring systems at Midwest ISO spotted something just before the summer blackout and employees called FirstEnergy to alert it to a potential problem, but no one called back, and Midwest ISO was unable to take corrective action on its own. "Many pieces are susceptible to failure, and we need people who realize exactly what to do when something happens," Gahagan says. New systems must be accompanied by rigorous training, he adds.

Nor can technology solve the organizational problems that plague companies like Midwest ISO, which aren't regulators and have limited ability to order utility and transmission companies to make changes, says Jill Feblowitz, senior service director in the energy practice at AMR Research. There's "no clear operator with enough data who can make the right demands," she says. "Everyone is making plans, but nothing indicates that a similar blackout couldn't happen again."

Another analyst says aging infrastructure and processes, not technology, are the main problems. "Transmission lines are old, and operational issues were most responsible for last summer's blackout," says Terry Ray, an analyst in the energy-service practice at Meta Group.

Still, technology can help. Some regional systems operators are investing significant dollars to eliminate weak points--and even take advantage of opportunities. Steven says PJM is spending close to 50% of its budget on business technology. In addition to making the grid more reliable, PJM is creating an online energy market for its members. While online energy trading got a black eye from the Enron scandal, Steven says there's a place for markets that provide "the right information at the right time. If a member wants to send 1,000 megawatts from point A to point B, we run a complex calculation to find out if it can happen in a reliable way."

Improved communications among the regional systems is crucial for efficient and safe energy trading. PJM has developed an enhanced online energy-scheduling tool so participants in the wholesale energy market can place requests for power and track and confirm transactions between regions. At the same time, it's automating the processes of trading and transmitting energy between regions and allowing neighboring regions to electronically verify exchanges.

When electricity transmission is jeopardized, business grinds to a halt, and people's safety is at risk. Hopefully, the money being spent on technology to improve visibility into the grid and communications among operators will help to keep the lights on.

Photograph by Image Bank

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