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Healing power: Electric grid, repair thyself

The U.S. electric grid is still years away from being intelligent enough to prevent blackouts and other disruptions. But there are existing and emerging technologies that can help it to repair itself.

By Thomas Hoffman
August 1, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The August 2003 blackout that left nearly 50 million people without electricity in much of the Northeastern U.S. and the Canadian province of Ontario did have at least one positive effect: It pushed the North American power industry to work harder to create a self-healing electric grid.
Problem is, the distribution grid that connects dozens of utilities and regional transmission organizations (RTO) with residential and commercial customers "is almost nowhere near" self-healing status, says Doug Fitchett, distribution research and development program manager at American Electric Power Co. in Columbus, Ohio.
"Think about your personal computer and the Internet. If your computer malfunctions while surfing the Net, you don't bring the World Wide Web to its knees," says Tim Healy, chairman and CEO of EnerNOC Inc., a Boston-based provider of demand response technologies used by the power industry. "Similarly, if you hit the wrong key at your office and your screen turns blue and freezes your system, you don't usually cause the rest of the office or your local-area network to grind to a halt."
But it's a different scenario with the nation's nonadaptive electric network, which is prone to a cascade of problems when one critical component, such as a transformer, fails, says Healy.
"I'd venture to say that we're 5% to 10% of the way there, but not as the result of one centralized orchestrated effort," says Zarko Sumic, an analyst at Gartner Inc. Current technologies, such as software algorithms used to identify equipment failures and then react to them, could help the electric industry get about halfway toward achieving a self-healing grid, Sumic adds.
The management of the nation's electric grid "is largely still done at the human level," says Ron Ambrosio, research manager for the energy and utility industry at IBM.
Ambrosio and other industry experts say a variety of existing and emerging technologies could go a long way toward helping the U.S. develop a self-healing electric grid. They include software that could be used to examine patterns of electrical use to help predict demand; intelligent sensors that could be installed on transformers and other components to detect and report on equipment problems; and systems that could be used during peak demand periods to notify industrial customers that they should curtail their use of electricity.
But there are several technical and business factors that are impeding progress toward a more reliable grid, say Fitchett and other industry executives. For starters, the electric industry needs a stable communications backbone so that relays and other devices on the grid that sense problems like generation overloads can



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