The Research Project – Week Four, Arkansas Grids

This week’s edition of The Research Project is the first one where I actually contacted one of the researchers involved for input. In this case Professor Alan Mantooth of the University of Arkansas was kind enough to give me feedback on what appears below. I hope to continue this practice regularly.
Disclaimer: If you already have enough things to keep you awake at night you might not want to read this week’s edition of The Research Project. If not, read on.

Apparently our nation’s power grid, the system that delivers electrical power to all the places that use electricity in the country, aka everywhere, is outdated and vulnerable to failures. Most of us have stories of lengthy power outages we have had to endure.

A group of scientists at the University of Arkansas is working with colleagues at the University of South Carolina and a number of utility companies to develop ways to address the problem. As is often the case the technology and the equipment needed to greatly improve the situation already exists but the power industry has been reluctant to invest the resources needed to remedy the situation.

The entity created to work on this issue goes by the acronym GRAPES, which stands for Grid-Connected Advanced Power Electronic Systems. GRAPES has been designated as an Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) by the National Science Foundation (NSF). As the name suggests, the purpose of I/UCRC’s is to facilitate close research interactions between university faculty and students and leaders of industry across the country.

The way our power grid is currently configured, when there is a significant surge at some point along a power line automatic circuit breakers are tripped to halt the surge. Most of the power grid does not have a way to control which circuit breakers are tripped when a surge occurs. Thus, a surge in one location can cause widespread power outages long distances from the source of the surge. For example, in 2003 a single surge in Ohio blacked out 50 million people along the East Coast.

GRAPES is encouraging utility companies to install smart grid technology and surge shock absorbers to increase greatly the reliability and resiliency of our power grid. Unfortunately it often takes some kind of catastrophe such as what happened on the East Coast in 2003 or the outages that happened as a result of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to get the utilities to act.

Another issue that GRAPES is addressing is the increasing number of individuals and businesses that are connected to the power grid but who also generate their own power. GRAPES researchers believe that a grid with more widely distributed power generation, renewables among these, is more reliable and resilient. At present there are no national standards or guidelines for these independent power producers to interface safely with the power grid.

Imagine a utility crew coming to fix a problem on the power grid. The crew members have taken all the necessary safety precautions from the utility’s standpoint to work on the outage. Little do they know that the business down the street is generating electricity for itself during the outage and pumping the excess electricity it is producing back into the grid. Scary dangerous!

Here are some links with more info about the work of GRAPES.

A view of what Manhattan looked like during the power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy. Obviously some parts of the city were more prepared than others.

Manhattan Blackout

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