Power Engineers Look to Make the Grid Smarter, More Secure

Conference covers smart grid tech

5 February 2010

The electric power industry is tasked with an enormous job. Managing the infrastructure needed to ensure that the lights come on every time we flip the switch—the power-generation facilities, the long-distance transmission lines, the substations, and the local distribution cables that bring electricity to homes and businesses—has become increasingly complex. Almost everywhere, those components are aging, and increased demand for electricity is straining them to the breaking point. That’s why electrical engineers are looking to retrofit the grid with sensors and to employ advanced software that will do a better job of balancing current loads, alerting power-system operators to impending failures, and giving consumers the information they need to adjust their usage patterns to everyone’s benefit.

The improvements, known collectively as the smart grid, hold so much promise that the organizers of the 2010 IEEE Transmission and Distribution Conference and Exposition, to be held from 19 to 22 April in New Orleans, are devoting an entire day to the technology behind them. Presenters are expected to explain what the smart grid is, show off the latest technologies for making the grid less prone to blackouts, and discuss market problems that have led to economically crippling price spikes.

The conference, which is sponsored by the IEEE Power & Energy Society, also includes daylong sessions focused on such topics as the cap-and-trade approach to the reduction of carbon emissions and the importance of energy storage. The latter is key to making wind and solar sources a major part of the energy mix. And given mounting concerns about carbon emissions, utilities are certain to have a growing need for such renewable sources to keep up with the increasing demand for electricity.

Other papers of note include “Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles in the Smart Grid Environment,” “Impact of Large-Scale Penetration of Photovoltaic Power Generation Systems on Fluctuation Property of Electricity Load," and “Communications Options for Distribution Automation and Automatic Metering.”

One topic that conference organizers are taking seriously is the grid’s status as a terrorism target. “Cybersecurity is a big issue,” says Senior Member Thomas W. Mayne, the conference chair. “We can make the grid as smart and efficient as we want, but making these networks and pieces of infrastructure safe from tampering has to be a prerequisite.” Papers on the subject include “Application of Operating Security Regions in Power Systems,” and there’s a scheduled panel session and a poster session on cybersecurity as it relates to the smart grid.

The conference features “plain talk” tutorials for professionals and policymakers who are involved in the utility world but have no engineering background. The courses, which are being offered each day, are titled “The Grid,” “Delivering Power to the Customers,” and “Power System Basics.”

Professional engineers can take tutorials as well. The classes, taught by college professors, “will allow an engineer to acquire in that one week all the continuing-education credits required to maintain his or her professional engineering license,” Mayne says, “including classes on engineering ethics.”

The advanced education track includes a trip to the Tulane University Energy Institute’s Trading Center, where each participant can run a real-time simulation of an energy market. The exercise demonstrates the myriad concerns a utility operator must weigh—all while keeping the system running smoothly.

Other classes include “The IEEE Standards Development Process,” “The Economics of Transformer Design,” “Short Circuit Calculations,” and “Hands-on Instruction by Relay Manufacturers.”

“If you’re involved with electricity transmission and distribution, you’re going to take away something that you can use in your job or that will make your company operate better,” Mayne says. That’s why the conference is able to attract 15 000 registrants every year, he says, including attendees from disciplines not normally associated with electric power generation or distribution, such as computer scientists and communications specialists.

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