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10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change Your World

(Page 9 of 11)

Power Grid Control

Power grids carry the seeds of their own destruction: massive flows of electricity that can race out of control in just seconds, threatening to melt the very lines that carry them. Built in the days before quick-reacting microprocessors and fiber optics, these networks were never designed to detect and squelch systemwide disturbances. Instead, each transmission line and power plant must fend for itself, shutting down when power flows spike or sag. The shortcomings of this system are all too familiar to the 50 million North Americans from Michigan to Ontario whose lights went out last August: as individual components sense trouble and shut down, the remaining power flows become even more disturbed, and neighboring lines and plants fall like multimillion-dollar dominoes. Often-needless shutdowns result, costing billions, and the problem is only expected to get worse as expanding economies push more power onto grids.

Christian Rehtanz thinks the time has come for modern control technology to take back the grid. Rehtanz, group assistant vice president for power systems technology with Zrich, Switzerland-based engineering giant ABB, is one of a growing number of researchers seeking to build new smarts into grid control rooms. These engineers are developing hardware and software to track electric flows across continent-wide grids several times a second, identify disturbances, and take immediate action. While such “wide area” control systems remain largely theoretical, Rehtanz and his ABB colleagues have fashioned one that is ready for installation today. If their design works as advertised, it will make power outages 100 times less likely, protecting grids against everything from consumption-inducing heat waves to terrorism. “We can push more power through the grid while, at the same time, making the system more predictable and more reliable,” says Rehtanz.

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