Seeking a Smarter, More Reliable Grid

On Aug. 14, 2003, the lights went out throughout the Northeastern and Midwestern regions of the U.S. and Ontario, affecting 50 million people. The outage, which started when tree limbs hit transmission lines in Ohio and cascaded across eight states, demonstrated the vulnerability of the electric grid system in the U.S.

Ten years later, key improvements have enhanced reliability of the nation’s electric transmission system, though critical challenges remain.

Members of the Energy and Environment Public Policy Committee engaged in a discussion with several experts on this topic during Saturday’s session on “Grid Reliability—Regulatory Challenges and Technology Opportunities.”

According to Brian Rybarik of the Mid-Continent Independent Transmission System Operator, or MISO, technology has helped improve the delivery of energy to customers more efficiently and enhance the ability of organizations like his to predict, prevent and recover from interruptions in the distribution process.

Through funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, MISO has incorporated new tools called synchrophasors, which provide more frequent and accurate monitoring reports on the transmission system and allow the agency to intervene more quickly when problems arise. 

“Going to synchrophasors is like doctors going from X-rays to MRIs,” said Rybarik.

Despite the availability of new technologies to enhance grid reliability, challenges remain.

Janet Senta, vice president and director policy and external affairs for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, noted that cybersecurity threats pose a risk to the electrical transmission system. A key role for her agency is to provide assessments on reliability, alert the industry when risks are identified and issue recommendations to prevent failure.

“We have to constantly be vigilant,” Sena said. “Our goal is to keep the lights on.”   

Aging resources are also a concern. According to Jeff Fleeman of American Electric Power, about one-third of transmission transformers are more than 50 years old.

“We do not have today a very good idea of the health of each individual asset within the grid system,” he added.

Through its asset health center, however, the company is automating the analysis of infrastructural integrity in order to expedite maintenance and minimize failures in the energy transmission system.

Bulk power, however, isn’t the only factor in the electrical transmission equation, noted Anne Hoskins of the Maryland Public Service Commission. Distributed energy, which provides small-scale alternatives or supplements to the traditional electric power system should be considered when thinking about reliability issues.

“Policymakers really need to look at the whole spectrum of options,” Hoskins said.