September 4, 2009 By Blake Harris
Photo: Jim Thorp, right, and Arun Phadke, left, Virginia Tech Professors of Electrical and Computer Engineering Emeriti, are strongly involved in projects which amount to more than 50 percent of the available U.S. Department of Energy stimulus awards to modernize the electric grid system and to improve the security and reliability of the energy infrastructure. (Virginia Tech Photo)
A couple of weeks ago, the Department of Energy's Office of Electricity and Energy Reliability announced that it will provide $4.3 million for four projects that will use innovative synchrophasor research to improve the reliability and efficiency of the U.S. elecricity grid. This is part of the Department's efforts to modernize the electric grid and enhance the security and reliability of the energy infrastructure.
According to news reports, some 300 submissions were made to the DOE to modernize the power grid, but so far, only four were funded. Two were projects at Virginia Tech - the home of two of the nation's icons in the electric power field, Arun Phadke and James Thorp.
Collaborators for decades, Thorp and Phadke have developed a number of advances that strengthen the electric utility industry's ability to prevent power grid blackouts, or to make them less intense and easier to recover from. Their numerous achievements throughout their careers culminated with the Franklin Medal (2008), presented to very select individuals whose great innovations have benefited humanity, advanced science, or launched new fields of inquiry.
In the two new research projects, Phadke is the principle investigator (PI) and Thorp is the Co-PI of a project with funding of $1.5 million, while Thorp leads the Virginia Tech team as a subcontractor for the second $1.1 million project. Both projects seek to enhance the effective use of synchrophasors.
Synchrophasors are high-speed, real-time synchronized measurement devices used to diagnose the health of the electricity grid. With synchrophasor data, electric utilities can use existing power more efficiently and push more power through the grid while reducing the likelihood of power disruptions like blackouts. Like an up-to-the-minute weather map for the nation's electricity grid, synchrophasor information enhances the ability to predict possible disruptions in time to remedy them.
The new research will build upon a recently completed three-year project funded by the California Energy Commission through the Public Interest Energy. Its findings indicated the use of wide area synchrophasor measurements in electrical power systems can be of significant value to power companies. These measurements can reduce the likelihood of false trips by protection systems and lessen the likelihood of contributing to a cascading effect.
"Recent blackouts on power systems have shown how critical a reliable power system is to modern societies. Blackouts can cause enormous economic and societal damage," Thorp said in a prepared statement. "The cascading phenomena can lead to additional blackouts. With a rough estimate that over five million electrical relaying systems exist on the North American power grid, it is to be expected that some of these unanticipated failures are due to defective relays."
Thorp's team will develop and demonstrate tools using synchrophasor measurements to reduce the likelihood of false and inappropriate triggers of transmission system circuit breakers that protectively shut down electrical flow and contribute to cascading blackouts.
Phadke's team will develop analytic tools and calibration techniques for measurement devices to implement an innovative synchrophasor-based tracking system to monitor the state of the electric grid. The techniques will better diagnose the sources of network unbalances and identify actions needed to remedy them.