The ‘Self-Healing’ Power Grid

Modernizing the grid means more than being smart

4 November 2013

Image: iStockphoto

“Smart grid” isn’t a very precise term. I prefer smart “self-healing” grid because it more accurately describes the desired outcome of the investments I advocate for in grid modernization.

A self-healing grid uses digital components and real-time communications technologies to monitor its own electrical characteristics at all times and can provide a number of benefits that support a more stable and efficient system. Three of its primary functions include:

  • Real-time monitoring and reaction, which allows the system to constantly tune itself to an optimal state.
  • Anticipation, which enables the system to automatically look for problems that could trigger larger disturbances.
  • Rapid isolation, which allows the system to isolate parts of the network that experience failure from the rest of the system to avoid the spread of disruption and enables a more rapid restoration. 

As a result of these functions, a self-healing smart-grid system is able to reduce power outages and minimize their length when they do occur. And, because the system is self-healing, it has an end-to-end resilience that detects and overrides human errors that result in some power outages, such as when a worker’s error left millions of California residents without electricity in September 2011.

Grid modernization is a global phenomenon but, on any given day in the United States, about a half million people are without power for two or more hours. Two-thirds of weather-related power disruptions have occurred in the past five years, affecting up to 178 million customers (meters) as changing weather patterns impact aging infrastructure.

The country’s electric power system still relies on technology developed in the 1960s and 1970s. The power sector is second from the bottom of major industries in terms of research and development (R&D).

Meanwhile, electricity needs are changing and growing fast. The infrastructure needed to operate the underpinning communication networks, data centers, and storage alone adds more than 2500 megawatt hours (Mwh) of demand globally per year that did not exist just five years ago. On average, 2500 Mwh is equivalent to the electricity used by about

825 000 homes in one hour. Factor in the growing use of the Internet and the digitization of medical records, and the world’s electricity supply will need to triple by 2050 just to keep up.

Beyond managing power disturbances, a smart-grid system has the ability to measure how and when consumers use the most power. This information allows utility providers to charge consumers variable rates for energy based on supply and demand. Ultimately, this variable rate will give consumers an incentive to shift their heaviest use of electricity to times of the day when demand is low. This will contribute to a healthier environment by helping consumers better manage and more efficiently use energy.

To transform our current infrastructure into a self-healing smart grid, several technologies must be deployed and integrated. The ideal smart-grid system consists of microgrids, which are small, mostly self-sufficient power systems, and a stronger, smarter high-voltage power grid, which serves as the backbone to the overall system. 

Upgrading the grid infrastructure for self-healing capabilities requires replacing traditional analog technologies with digital components, software processors, and power electronics technologies. These must be installed throughout a system so that it can be digitally controlled, which is the key ingredient to a grid that is self-monitoring and self-healing.

Much of the technology and systems thinking behind self-healing power grids comes from the military aviation sector, where I worked for 14 years on damage-adaptive flight systems for F-15 aircrafts, optimizing logistics and studying the survival of squadrons and the effectiveness of their mission. In January 1998, when I joined the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), I helped bring these concepts to electricity power systems and other critical infrastructure networks, including energy, water, telecommunications and finance (read the report here). Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, resilience and security have become even more important. 

Today in the United States, 16 programs on smart grid are being developed at agencies such as the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and National Science Foundation, amounting to several billions of dollars being spent to support the work per year. More than 100 public and private projects, many on smart meters, address the electricity system in piecemeal fashion.

This article is the fourth in a series on “Modernizing the Grid.” The next post will discuss if the smart grid is secure, private, and safe. Follow us @IEEEInstituteFacebook, or sign up for our E-newsletter to get notified of upcoming posts.

Massoud_Amin Photo: Massoud Amin

Massoud Amin is an IEEE senior member and the director of the University of Minnesota’s Technological Leadership Institute, in Minneapolis, where he is also a professor of electrical and computer engineering. He is chair of the IEEE Control Systems Society’s Technical Committee on Smart Grids, and serves as chairman of the IEEE Smart Grid Newsletter.

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