It used to be that those who warned about massive power blackouts were accused of being so many Chicken Littles.

Not anymore.

Last August’s massive failure on the East Coast raised awareness about how very vulnerable the electric power grid is to massive accidental failures and to cyber-attacks. A group of researchers in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, including professors Dave Bakken, Carl Hauser and Anjan Bose, are working to improve the communication infrastructure of the power grid. They are developing what they hope will be an “electricity-communications superhighway’’ that will prevent communication failures that contribute to blackouts.

Their new software system, GridStat, is a versatile approach to handling the scaling-up of data that is imperative to running a deregulated power grid and to increasing its reliability and security.

The electric power grid’s existing communication infrastructure was designed decades ago when computer networks were much less advanced and power companies had complete control of a geographic region. Since then, a large number of intelligent devices to better monitor and control the grid have been developed. Additionally, deregulation in the electric power industry means that many more companies are involved in the generation, transmission, distribution, trading and monitoring of power than in earlier years.

GridStat is a new kind of middleware, a class of software technologies that sits above a computer operating system but below an application program, and helps manage complex distributed communications. GridStat provides resilient, secure and timely status information delivery across a wide area. At the same time, rather than requiring sophisticated software programming, the system is easy for power engineers to use.

The researchers on the project are a unique interdisciplinary team from computer science and electrical engineering, combining expertise in power engineering and distributed computing. GridStat is more powerful, more versatile and more secure than the existing power grid communication system and will be capable of more sophisticated real-time control. A GridStat laboratory prototype is operational at WSU. A demonstration can be viewed at http://www.gridstat.net.

GridStat has been under development for almost four years. It has received funding from the Critical Infrastructure Protection program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Avista Utilities supported development of the GridStat web demonstration. Discussions are under way with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Energy concerning additional funding for further hardening and extending GridStat’s capabilities.

Funds also may come available through the Virtual Possibilities Network (VPnet) project, 200 miles of optic fiber connecting higher education institutions in eastern Washington and Idaho in order to encourage regional collaboration on projects among higher education, medical, business and government communities. VPnet could facilitate collaboration on GridStat with Avista, the Bonneville Power Administration and other power entities.

It is estimated GridStat over time could create 100 jobs in the region as it pursues commercialization and eventual expansion to overseas markets.