DOE Spends $200M on Grid Measurement Units to Avoid Blackouts

US Dept EnergyEngineers are installing and linking around 1,000 “phasor measurement units” in an attempt to predict, and hopefully avoid, catastrophic power outages.

On August 14, 2003, around 50 million people from the American Northeast to the Midwest lost power. In the aftermath, investigators found readings from two phasor measurement units that would have given utility workers around one hour’s notice of the upcoming blackout – more than enough time to solve the problem if the units were wired into utilities’ stream of critical data, reports the New York Times.

The new system of 1,000 units should make the old system look like “taking a patient’s pulse compared with running a continuous electrocardiogram,” the Times reports.

The US Department of Energy is spending around $200 million on the project, the paper reports.

Phasor measurement units work by measuring the current of power at different points across the electricity grid. Under normal running, measurements should be basically the same. If there is a significant variation between measurements, it could be a sign of a coming outage, the paper reports.

By the end of 2014 all 1,000 units will be in operation, the Energy Department says. The next challenge is finding a way to display their data to human operators in a useful way.

In May, Atmospheric and Environmental Research formed a strategic alliance with The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company to create a service that will help facilities assess and manage the risk of energy blackouts. Electrical blackouts in the US cost businesses and consumers more than $100 billion annually, according to AER, which says the market lacks a widely available and dependable tool to calculate the financial consequences of power outages. HSB and AER are commercializing the blackout risk data and technologies that the firms have built, calibrated and applied within their businesses over the past decade.

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