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Monitor the Electrons in Real Time

Mar 23, 2009 - Brendan I. Koerner - Wired Magazine

Monitor the electrons in real time
Illustration: Lamosca



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The grid is like the adage about a butterfly flapping its wings; an outage in Michigan can cause blackouts in Florida. While utilities are investing in software to spot problems on their own chunks of the grid, they are reluctant to share that information with one another.

Trust a third party. Oak Ridge National Laboratory persuaded 30 utilities to share some of their most precious real-time data in exchange for a grid visualization tool that helps everyone. The lab signs a nondisclosure agreement with each utility, then feeds the raw information into a monitoring system called Verde (Visualizing Energy Resources Dynamically on Earth) that tracks grid assets nationwide, as shown in the illustration above. Users can see where inclement weather is developing that might threaten transmission lines—if a thunderstorm is brewing in Kansas, a utility can temporarily reroute its power. Verde also receives a constant flow of real-time data regarding the health of wires, letting operators know if a blackout is sweeping southern Alabama or transmission lines seem congested in South Dakota. Ultimately, a system like Verde will make the grid more efficient. High-voltage lines frequently carry as little as 60 percent of their capacities, since utilities fear sudden power surges. If operators don't have to worry about unexpected crises, they'll be able to transmit more electricity to their customers.