Sandia read the runes of energy demand

Major power emergencies like the recent conservation alert in California might be averted if power companies adopt new command and control software.

A recent US Department of Energy (DOE) study headed by Sandia National Laboratories suggests that major power emergencies like the recent conservation alert in California might be averted if power companies adopt new command and control software that predicts future energy demand rather than simply responds to it.

DOE Secretary Bill Richardson has warned consumers since January that if last year’s series of major regional power outages are any indication, this summer might bring Y2K-like power failures to large areas of the nation as power companies struggle to meet peak daytime electricity drain prompted by widespread air conditioner use.

Traditionally power companies use state-of-health software tools to monitor how power is flowing from place to place, watch for the telltale signs of imminent outages, and determine whether additional power should be purchased from other companies to bolster reserves.

The DOE report concludes that these ‘deterministic’ grid-monitoring tools are becoming outdated and that new, more sophisticated software tools based on risk assessment are needed. Such command and control software would include various mathematical models, including those that simulate load flow, dispatch options, weather factors, contingencies, and more, according to the report. They would, in a sense, help power plant operators predict the future — or at least quantify the likelihood of something happening and test the effects of responses hours or days in advance.

‘The software tools power companies use to monitor and control the electric grid were not designed for the level of complexity and the number of transactions the system is experiencing today,’ says Sandia’s Abbas Akhil, a member of a DOE-wide team looking at electric grid reliability issues. ‘They are not adequate for predicting and averting major outages of the future.’

The report also suggests further study of a ‘distributed power grid’: the idea that hundreds of traditional and nontraditional generation sources and storage devices — including wind turbines, solar collectors, and other generators — could supply power to the grid, enabling less reliance on large-scale power plants and giving the grid a broader, more stable foundation.