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Anarchy Rules

New York’s power problems rank among the country’s toughest because the state’s grid is particularly complex and congested, but its situation is far from unique. Grid operators up and down the eastern seaboard are straining to meet rapid growth in electricity demand, while persistent regional bottlenecks present a constant cause of worries in the Midwest. (Transnergie is eyeing several projects, similar to the one in Long Island, to span the Great Lakes.)

Fortunately, even as the problems escalate, power electronics may be about to benefit from smaller and cheaper silicon switches-in the same way PCs have benefited from faster and cheaper computer chips. Call it Moore’s Law for power electronics. Quicker switches providing cheaper power processors mean that, for the same buck, grid operators can install larger systems with greater impact on the grid. And that’s good news for grid controllers, for whom power over power is intoxicating. “Now that I understand what it does, I wish it was bigger,” says Len Panzica, one of the controls engineers who put Marcy’s system through its paces this spring.

The grand vision, of course, is to electronically tame the nation’s vast power network. Unlike isolated devices that regulate a few lines each, integrated network controls could synchronously tweak all of a system’s electronics to optimize flow over the entire grid. Stahlkopf of the Electric Power Research Institute estimates that integrated control could boost the overall transmission capacity of existing infrastructure by 30 to 40 percent. Stahlkopf figures this leap forward is at least 10 years off, but he says utilities are already beginning to take an important step-wide-area telemetry providing operators with a real-time picture of how much power is flowing over their lines and from where.

However, with anarchy gripping today’s power grid, integrated controls-even in a decade from now-seem like a bit of a pipe dream. Rapid deregulation has swept away the old rules without offering coherent alternatives for who should run the network and how they will get paid for it-making it an especially tough time to market advances offered by power electronics.

New systems like those at Marcy are even more politically charged because they can spontaneously reconfigure the grid, potentially increasing the strategic value of some power plants and idling others. LaRose says the Marcy project has few enemies because it can only shift a few hundred megawatts in a system that handles over 30,000 megawatts daily. But he says a larger project could find itself facing formid-able opposition. To implement these new technologies, you’ve “got to walk very gingerly through that minefield,” says LaRose.

What’s more, power electronics aren’t cheap. Even with Siemens, the Electric Power Research Institute and 21 utilities keen to demonstrate the technology chipping in $13 million for the Marcy project, the New York Power Authority must come up with $35 million more, which it’s attempting to do by selling bonds to wary financial investors. With the rules for transmission investments in flux, there is a real possibility that the Power Authority will never fully recoup its investment.

So why roll the dice on expensive equipment? The engineering answer is that for the foreseeable future, anyway, power electronics is the best hope for stabilizing the electric grid. The more pragmatic answer is that the New York Power Authority, a state-owned corporation, is directly accountable to politicians who fear the wrath of voters if the rolling blackouts darkening California’s economy roll across the Empire State. Unfortunately, it may take a few more dark days and cold nights without electricity before the rest of the grid’s numerous interested parties begin to see the light.

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Tagged: Energy

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