In a lab in Richland, Wash., researchers have set up a prototype cockpit for the envisioned smart grid. The Electrical Infrastructure Operations Center offers a window into a world where everything from power plants to coffee pots might one day ride on a set of common electric and data networks.
The control room resembles the setups used to oversee large communications networks or data centers. It monitors an electrical grid that today is still largely made of standalone analog and mechanical parts.
"We can actually watch different parts of the system rocking against each other. We can see the lead and lag in signaling," said Steve Widergren, an engineer working on smart grid research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which built the demonstration system.
The center monitors reports from a network of sensors known as phasor measurement units. PMUs are essentially test systems that sample (as often as 60 times a second) the voltage, current and frequency of power flowing on the grid. The devices use embedded GPS modules to synchronize their measurements, delivering the equivalent of a 60-frame/second video of the electric traffic on the grid.
The fledgling network comprises about 165 PMUs scattered around three of the four major electric grid regions in North America. It would require at least 500 PMUs in the eastern region alone to monitor the grid in a comprehensive fashion.
The operations center does not actually handle any grid operations but is designed as an R&D vehicle. It aims to point the way to centers that could anticipate and prevent surges or blackouts, minimize transmission losses, and respond in real-time to changes in demand.
Today's utilities are putting small pieces of such concepts in place.