Time to Rightsize the Grid?

Does Size Matter Source CarrerasLast week a team of systems scientists known for counter-intuitive insights on power grids delivered a fresh one that questions one of the tenets of grid design: bigger grids, they argue, may not make for better grids. University of Iowa electrical engineering professor Ian Dobson and physicists David Newman and Ben Carreras make the case for optimal sizing of power grids in last week’s issue of the nonlinear sciences journal Chaos.

In a nutshell, the systems scientists use grid modeling to show that grid benefits such as frequency stabilization and power trading can be outweighed by the debilitating impacts of big blackouts. As grids grow larger, they become enablers for ever larger cascading blackouts. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was a classic case. From a tripped line in northern Ohio, the outage cascaded in all directions to unplug more than 50 million people from western Michigan and Toronto to New York City. Continue reading

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Blackouts Ahead on Our Unruly Power Grids

ImageTen years after the Northeast Blackout that shut off power in seven U.S. states and Ontario cascading power grid failures remain a fact of life. And, as I argue today on Spectrum’s Energywise blog, engineers are little closer to predicting and preventing them.

The good news is that engineers are beginning to accept that they have a complex system problem on their hands — an insight that could help them find solutions.

Such understanding was in short supply one year after the Northeast blackout, as I discovered with the publication of my August 2004 cover story for IEEE Spectrum commemorating its one-year anniversary profiling the apparent mathematical inevitability of cascading power-system failures. That message raised a firestorm of protest from engineers who saw their can-do creed under attack.

Today, however, the black sheep who spotted the tell-tale signs of a chaotic self-organizing system in blackout databases have come in from the cold. The University of Wisconsin’s Ian Dobson, for example, says he is having success attracting grants — no mean feat for interdisciplinary research targeting the uber-unsexy field of power transmission. And the IEEE set up a task force on cascading failures (with Dobson at the table).

One obvious cause for rising consciousness is the fact that blackouts just keep happening Continue reading