Breakthrough Watch: A better way to prevent large-scale outages?

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A method of assessing the stability of large-scale power grids in real time could bring the world closer to its goal of producing and utilizing a smart grid. The algorithmic approach, developed by UC Santa Barbara professor Igor Mezic along with Yoshihiko Susuki from Kyoto University, can predict future massive instabilities in the power grid and make power outages a thing of the past.

 

“If we can get these instabilities under control, then people won’t have to worry about losing power,” said Mezic, who teaches in UCSB’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “And we can put in more fluctuating sources, like solar and wind.”

 

While development of more energy efficient machines and devices and the emergence of alternative forms of energy give us reason to be optimistic for a greener future, the promise of sustainable, reliable energy is only as good as the infrastructure that delivers it. Conventional power grids, the system that still distributes most of our electricity today, were built for the demands of almost a century ago. As the demand for energy steadily rises, not only will the supply become inadequate under today’s technology, its distribution will become inefficient and wasteful.

 

“Each individual component does not know what the collective state of affairs is,” Mezic said.

 

Current methods rely on a steady, abundant supply, producing enough energy to flow through the grid at all times, regardless of demand, he explained. However, should part of a grid already operating at capacity fail — say in times of disaster, attack or malfunction — widespread blackouts all over the system can occur.

“Everybody shuts down,” Mezic said.