Sustainable Energy

Girding the Grid

Computer models may soon protect the grid from cascading failures.

Considering that a tree’s touching an Oregon transmission line in 1996 sparked a blackout stretching from Mexico to Canada, it’s not hard to imagine how coordinated attacks on the power grid could wreak continent-wide havoc. But within five years, new computer models could have the ability to respond to disasters in real time, throwing switches and rerouting power as repercussions spread. And that could help North America’s interconnected grids protect themselves in the face of cascading failures, whether touched off by trees or terrorists.

The challenges involved in counteracting threats to the grid are “similar to playing a game of chess, but a lot harder,” says Massoud Amin, area manager of infrastructure security at the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility-sponsored consortium in Palo Alto, CA. The institute recently tackled these challenges alongside researchers from two utilities and 26 universities, building new computer models that respond to disturbances by breaking up a large section of the grid into smaller “islands.” This interrupts cascading failures and speeds restoration of service. In successful tests last year, the models detected simulated problems, calculated the likely domino effects and remotely tripped circuit breakers to isolate the disturbances and create islands. The models then balanced supply and demand within the islands by reducing power plant output or creating controlled brownouts.

The institute expects to put the models in control of actual emergency responses by 2005, when efforts to retrofit the electrical grid with electronic controls and sensors should also be farther along. Together, such advances may help to checkmate terrorists eyeing the grid.

Cut off? Read unlimited articles today.

Become an Insider
Already an Insider? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look: exclusive early access to important stories, before they’re available to anyone else

    Insider Conversations: listen in on in-depth calls between our editors and today’s thought leaders

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.