September 19, 2007 By Chandler Harris
In August 2003, the largest blackout in North American history left 50 million people without power in eight states and Canada. The blackout cost an estimated $6 billion and revealed a flawed and aging power infrastructure developed shortly after World War II.
As a result of the Northeast blackout - and subsequent smaller blackouts and brownouts in California and Texas - power companies nationwide have been researching wide area energy measurement technologies. "Smart" is the term used to define a host of new technology-empowered tools in the energy sector that are part of a trend in electricity conservation fueled by increasing power demand, an overburdened and antiquated electrical grid and a desire to curb energy use because of global warming.
Congress called for reform of the U.S. power infrastructure, including increased spending for a national smart power grid. Both Congress and U.S. power companies are conducting research to update power grids to "smart grids". "Smart meters" allow interactive connectivity with smart grids and are now used throughout the U.S., Canada and some Western European countries.
Southern California Edison (SCE) said it developed a new grid measurement technology that will help prevent future cascading blackouts and would've helped control the Northeast blackout. Last May, Edison International testified before a U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee about its Synchronous Phasor Measurement, which gauges stress on utility transmission grids and provides an early warning system to help prevent blackouts.
"We've had a lot of smart people who have wanted to apply better tools for at least a dozen years at Edison, but we hit a point in history of unique convergence where all the stuff we knew was possible in terms of energy and mathematics is becoming practical now because of advances in computing and communications," said Jim Kelly, vice president of engineering and technical services at SCE.
The notion behind SCE's smart grid is that manual systems, which are still being used, can be computerized to enable automated responses -- which are faster and more accurate -- to grid conditions that change at a pace only a microprocessor can keep up with.
"In order to have a truly smart grid when you've got a product that is operating 60 times a second alternating current, you really need to be able to monitor it almost that rapidly, make decisions and do things to make the grid more reliable in real time in very short intervals," Kelly said. "You've got to have computers that enable you to send signals back and forth hundreds of miles in tiny fractions of a second and react to them as quickly."
SCE's system, which has been implemented already in certain areas, gives grid operators more information at a faster rate about the causes and impacts of power outages. Synchronous Phasor Measurement can detect how stressed a power grid is, determine where the problem is and take corrective action before customers notice a glitch in their power.
At the residential level, smart meters work in conjunction with smart grids. Smart meters identify consumption in more detail than a conventional meter and communicate the information back to a network at the utility company for monitoring and billing purposes.
After Congress enacted the Energy Policy Act of 2005, ordering utility companies to consider implementing advanced meters, programs to deploy smart electric meters have been put in place throughout the country. Power companies in California, Texas and Illinois all have smart meter programs, and pilots are planned or under way in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Baton Rouge, La., among others.
Smart meters will let customers pay "time-of-use" prices for electricity, which may vary depending on the time of day, according to utility companies. This