PORTLAND, Ore. Virginia Tech researchers want to return to Thomas Edison's concept of local power generation, operating alongside existing large-scale plants connected to transmission networks.
Such power grid renovation has the potential to minimize the risk of future blackouts by managing a network of privately-owned microgrids that harness renewable energy, according to a four-year, $2 million study being conducted by Virginia Tech.
"In this research, we are going to address two major issues: the resiliency of interdependent electric power and communications systems and their sustainability," said Lamine Mili, a professor in Virginia Tech's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
"Resiliency is obtained by managing the risk of cascading failures leading to large-scale blackouts, while sustainability is obtained by making the system agile, able to respond to changing conditions and to environmental constraints," Mili added.
|Virginia Tech's Lamine Mili wants to revive Thomas Edison's ideas about decentralizing power generation.|
According to Mili, control of electric power systems relies heavily on communications networks supporting what he called supervisory control and data acquisition and protection systems. These systems are linked to power company networks. The failure of one net can affect the entire infrastructure. For instance, a software bug could result in power system failures, or extended power failures could shut down parts of the communications system.
"The electric power grid and the communications networks--especially the Internet--are highly interdependent," said Mili. "We are going to model them, investigate how shock waves propagate within and across them, then find ways to mitigate their vulnerabilities to equipment failures and natural hazards such as hurricanes."
Virginia Tech is also proposing a restructuring of the current power infrastructure into privately-owned microgrids. Researchers claim microgrids would not only insulate communities from widespread blackouts, but also provide consumers with more choices about energy sources. Mili said he wants to group new energy sources into microgrids, thereby promoting both green energy development and greater protection against failures.
"Renewable energy resources are essentially organized into small-scale power generating units and storage devices, not large-scale power plants," said Mili. "We propose to gather them into microgrids--a small grid supervised and owned by private businesses competing in a retail market."
One goal is to "provide incentives to these small companies, as well as to customers, to make the system more efficient, less polluting and more resilient to failures," he added. Microgrid owners could sell power to utilities during peak demand when prices are higher and buy from them during off-peak hours.
The reseachers are also seeking new U.S. energy policies that will encourage private companies to reorganize the energy sector into vibrant retail market. Retail energy markets would be economically viable without public subsidies, they argue, thanks to pricing mechanisms that would integrate emission costs along with the cost of network expansion.
Proponents also say microgrids could be integrated using decentralized, coordinated control schemes. Incentives and penalties would encourage consumers to participate in energy conservation and grid survivability during emergencies. For instance, microgrids could supply power to sustain emergency services during lengthy power outages while repairs are made to larger grids.