Natasha Johnson likes to look on the bright side of things, even when recalling the three days in 2003 when she was left in the dark.

“Our saving grace was that it happened in the summer so we didn’t have to battle the cold as well,” she said, remembering the power outage that affected 50 million people in eight states.

Living in Brooklyn, N.Y., at the time, the Jamaica native considers herself lucky; she was at home when the power went out. Her family members working in Manhattan didn’t have the same fortune. With the subways and traffic lights out of commission, they spent more than three hours walking home with their fellow outer-borough commuters.

“Thank God everyone was patient and cautious so there were no serious road accidents,” Johnson said.

The blackout hit New York about one hour before the close of business Aug. 14, but the trouble started earlier that afternoon in Ohio. Around 2 p.m., a high-voltage power line brushed against overgrown trees, causing a fault, or shutdown, on the line. FirstEnergy, which owned the system, should have been alerted to the problem, but its monitoring program failed to sound the alarm.

Soon, the system overloaded, knocking out power to part of Ohio. And as the surge spread through the lines, the dominoes began to fall. Michigan went dark. New York, dark. New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and part of Ontario, Canada, all left without power in what became the largest outage in North American history.

“If they’d had better visibility into what the grid was doing in Ohio, the utility could have simply opened circuits to disconnect affected regions of Ohio from the rest of the interconnect and prevent the blackout from rippling out,” explained Tommy Morris. “Because they couldn’t see the problem, they couldn’t react and the result costs billions of dollars.”

The Department of Energy estimates the blackout cost $6 billion. This includes approximately $4 billion in lost income, more than $1 billion in repairs to affected utilities, and between $380 and $940 million in lost or spoiled commodities.

An assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, Morris said the fallout from the 2003 blackout resulted in increased regulations, investment in new technology and a change in philosophy for the power industry.

Reports of the incident focused largely on the three Ts— trees, tools and training. Lack of maintenance on trees surrounding the lines, faulty equipment and inadequate training for personnel were cited as the primary causes for the blackout. This led to new standards being developed by the North American Electricity Reliability Council.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission enforces these regulations, sometimes through million-dollar fines for noncompliance. The agency’s oversight helps ensure proper maintenance for the power systems and training for their operators.

Tighter regulations and a push to be more reliable also have spurred the development of tools to help utilities better monitor and control their systems. In the 10 years since the record-setting blackout, power providers have invested millions in these advancements to make America’s electric grid “smarter”–a word that is widely applied, but not uniformly defined.

The term “smart grid” is often mistakenly used as if it is a thing, a tangible piece of technology installed to make things better. However, it actually refers to a wide range of software, devices and ideas that make utilities more efficient and reliable; a way of doing things, rather than on specific technological development.

“Basically, a smart grid is a collection of best-practiced technologies that help improve reliability and maintain high efficiency, which helps lower operating costs and make managing electricity demand more effective,” explained Brock Parker, an engineer with the Southern Co.

A 2004 computer engineering graduate, Parker works with grid-management software as part of Southern Co.’s distribution management system group. He said the software works with smart devices deployed throughout the company’s infrastructure to provide real-time information about its status.

“One of the biggest aspects of smart grids is the communication network that provides fast, two-way communication between field devices and management tools,” Parker said. “It functions similarly to a complex computer network, giving us information about power demand and pricing so we can make informed decisions about generation.”

The information a smart grid provides about real-time power use allows utility companies to operate more efficiently by helping decide how much power to produce or purchase at any given moment. It also helps companies ensure they use the most efficient generation processes to meet demand, which leads to lower cost, more environmentally friendly electricity.

Parker said that up-to-the-minute updates on the status of the grid also helps companies lessen downtime by alerting operators to outages or problems, such as the surge that caused the 2003 blackout, so they can take preventative or corrective actions.

“Having an accurate idea about the status of the electrical network helps us better control voltage and make better-informed decisions during storm situations so that we can prevent outages or restore power faster and more safely,” Parker explained.

Atlanta-based Southern Co.’s 99 percent reliability is due, in part, to smart grid investments, including a $165 million Department of Energy grant. New Orleans-based Entergy estimates that it now avoids more that 100,000 service interruptions annually because of smart-grid-based technology.

John Scott, with Entergy’s transmission and distribution asset management area, said investments in new technology prove their worth by helping to keep the power grid running smoothly.

“It’s like an insurance policy,” the 1986 electrical engineering graduate said. “When you buy it, you never know if you will use it. But when you need it, you’re glad it’s there.”

Entergy has received two smart-grid investment grants. One was used to install smart meters throughout the New Orleans metropolitan area. The second is being used to install 49 synchrophasor units across four states. These units provide real-time and GPS-synchronized data about voltage stability. That information can be shared with other service providers to thoroughly monitor the grid and prevent a widespread outage.

Scott said Entergy also is developing and installing distribution-automated load transfer schemes, that are a type of “self-healing” technology used industry-wide to automatically isolate and correct problems to limit their effect on customers.

Load transfer schemes are activated when an outside force causes a fault in the distribution system. When a fault occurs in a traditional system, power company employees have to patrol the line to find and correct the problem, leaving many people without electricity during the time-consuming process. The new automated systems isolate the fault and automatically restore power to all but a few customers directly affected by the faulty line, Scott said.

Most of the changes to grid infrastructure go unnoticed by consumers. However, the results of their use can be seen through lower bills, fewer power outages and, ultimately, more insight into exactly what is happening with the power coming into their homes, including the expected duration of an outage or how much the electricity costs at that moment.

“Our jobs are changing because our customers’ expectations are changing,” Scott said. “This is not your grandfather’s utility anymore.”

Ensuring Bright Days Ahead

The shift to “smarter” systems has made America’s power supply more reliable and less susceptible to widespread outages like the 2003 incident, but the grid is still under pressure.
In terms of security, the new interconnected technology of smart grids could open the systems to cyber-based attacks.

“In more traditional systems, you had to worry only about physical security. Now, with the system being connected through communication networks there’s the potential for a hacker or malware to get in virtually,” Morris explained.

As a grid security researcher at Mississippi State, Morris is helping prevent these breaches by vetting new technology for possible vulnerabilities and finding ways to make it more secure. One of his current projects provides intrusion detection solutions for Pacific Gas and Electric, one of the nation’s largest gas and electric companies, by monitoring its device and network traffic for signs of an attacker.

“Power is a critical infrastructure, one of the most critical because the economy doesn’t work without it,” Morris emphasized. “That’s why the government and different companies are investing in smart grids and their security.”

On the supply side, the power grid faces pressure from increased demand caused, in part, by extreme weather conditions. Yong Fu, an electrical and computer engineering assistant professor at Mississippi State, is using a CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to develop ways for the power system to meet this demand more efficiently.

Fu’s primary research focuses on the decision-making capabilities of smart grids. The goal is to increase communication between utilities and consumers so that the systems can automatically make decisions that save energy, save money and improve grid reliability.

“We want to coordinate information sharing so the utility can get information about energy usage and customers, can get information about the real-time price of energy,” Fu said. “That will allow utilities to make decisions about generation and customers can adjust their energy-use habits to reduce costs.”

Ultimately, smart grids also will make it easier to incorporate renewable energy into the existing grid. However, Fu said right now it is important to make sure the system is able to collect, analyze and act on information to increase its reliability before adding additional elements into the mix.

“Renewable energy is how we improve efficiency, but information collection and decision-making is how we improve reliability,” Fu explained. “We need to focus on using the computing technology and the data it collects to benefit the grid.”

Fu has received a Department of Energy grant to help train current utility employees to use the new technology. Workforce training held on Mississippi State’s campus explains the devices and software and how each is used to make the process of power generation and distribution run more smoothly.

The classes also expose trainees, as well as current MSU students, to the future of power generation through an energy farm. Located on the roof of Simrall Hall, the building that houses the department of electrical and computer engineering, the farm consists of two wind turbines and 24 solar panels, that are integrated into the building’s power system so students can see how the renewable energy sources function in real-life situations.

“Smart grids could go a long way to bringing us energy independence,” Morris said. “It’s taking time, but it will come.”

Morris said the development of smart grids is often compared to the rise of the Internet.

“At first, no one really knew what websites were going to be, but they built the infrastructure and then came innovation,” he explained. “There are a lot of big ideas associated with smart grids, and once entrepreneurs get involved, who knows where the technology could be in 10 or 20 years.”

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