Keeping The Lights On - InformationWeek

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Software // Enterprise Applications
10:35 AM

Keeping The Lights On

Power utilities have spent millions on business technology in the hope that they can make last year's regional power outage the last of its kind. Here's what they've done so far and what still needs doing.

With mild temperatures this summer in the Great Lakes region and east across New York state, people's patience and air conditioners haven't been tested yet the way they were last year. More important, neither have the improvements made to the electrical power grid since last summer, when more than 50 million people across six states and parts of Canada were left in the dark by a cascading power outage.

Utility officials, however, are cautiously confident that the hundreds of millions of dollars they've spent to upgrade transmission systems and the computers used to monitor and manage those systems will prevent a massive blackout like the one that hit a year ago this week. There's still work to be done in training, procedures, regulations, and information systems, but the past year has seen the power industry use business technology to tackle a key problem: getting the right information flowing so that the juice keeps flowing, too.

Better information might have prevented what happened last year when hot weather caused power lines to sag and touch trees. That triggered outages among the systems owned by Ohio utility FirstEnergy Corp., resulting in power surges across the Eastern transmission grid. That problem cascaded to black out entire regions because system operators lacked tools to accurately monitor what was happening and failed to follow procedures for providing quick notice to neighboring utilities. After the blackout, utilities, transmission companies, power generators, and the six major regional operators of power-transmission grids scrambled to upgrade systems to improve their ability to monitor what's happening with their own equipment, as well as what's taking place in other parts of the country that could affect their ability to deliver power to customers. They also improved their procedures so operators in high-pressure situations can access and use information about potential problems more quickly.

"In the heat of the moment, do they drop customers or hang on a little longer?" asks Luther Dow, director of power delivery and markets at utility-industry research firm Electric Power Research Institute. "We need the technology to make that decision easier."

Technology can't do it alone. A joint U.S.-Canadian task force that investigated the blackout recommended, among other things, making reliability standards mandatory and enforceable, with penalties for noncompliance.

Legislation pending in Congress would give more power to the North American Electric Reliability Council, including the ability to impose fines on utilities that don't follow rules and proper procedures. Many in the industry support such laws. But with passage unlikely in an election year, the industry is looking for solutions internally.

''If we can't depend on our system operators, we could have the same problem,'' president and CEO of the New York Independent System Operator William Museler says. -- Photograph by Ben Stechschulte/Redux Pictures

"If we can't depend on our system operators, we could have the same problem," president and CEO of the New York Independent System Operator William Museler says.

Photograph by
Ben Stechschulte/Redux Pictures
"We could get better intelligence and communications," says William Museler, president and CEO of the New York Independent System Operator, which oversees the transmission grid in New York. "But even with the best of those, if we can't depend on our system operators, we could have the same problem."

One problem last year was the limited amount of real-time information the utilities had on the status of their systems. Several of the regional operators in the past year have introduced new or enhanced "state estimator" systems that analyze transmission systems using real-time data and mathematical models.

The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator Inc., which provides service to 42 utility companies in 15 states, gathers information every 30 seconds from 30,000 network buses, or substations where transmission lines connect, and 87,000 data points. The Midwest ISO state estimator system runs on Hewlett-Packard's Tru64 Unix servers and uses software from Areva Group to collect and display data. PJM Interconnection, a regional operator that provides service to all or parts of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, expanded its estimator to draw data from more than 46,000 points on its grid, up from 22,600 points. The system now develops models for how 45,000 locations on the grid should operate, up from 11,000 nodes.

The North American Electric Reliability Council also has an ongoing program to improve the system-control and data-acquisition systems and the security that protects them. "We cover the control center to substation, including relay computers, to protect against faults," says Lou Leffler, manager of critical infrastructure protection at the council. "Lately, we're looking at how we protect these relays that are out there."

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