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Researchers Open a Window on Tomorrow's Grid

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electricity pylons

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's (PNNL's) Electrical Infrastructure Operations Center features a prototype control room that provides a glimpse into the envisioned smart grid, which would connect everything from coffee pots to power plants through a series of common electric and data networks. "We can actually watch different parts of the system rocking against each other," says PNNL's Steve Widergren. "We can see the lead and lag in signaling." The center, which currently is used only for research and development, monitors reports from a network of sensors known as phasor measurement units (PMUs).

PMUs are test systems that sample the voltage, current, and frequency of power movement on the grid. They feature global positioning system modules to synchronize their measurements, creating the equivalent of a 60-frame/second video of the electric traffic grid. The center aims to expose how other centers could anticipate and prevent surges or blackouts, minimize transmission losses, and quickly respond to changes in demand.

Some utilities are already deploying some of the center's concepts. For example, Pacific Gas & Electric spends about $10 million a year on proprietary wired sensors in its transmission and distribution network, and has proposed a plan to spend more than $1 billion over six years on a network of control systems to respond automatically to problems on its distribution system.

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