The U.S. electrical power grid has not yet been transformed by the digital technology revolution. But Anjan Bose, the WSU Distinguished Professor of Power Engineering, thinks that is about to change.
“There’s a huge amount of excitement in the industry,” Bose said recently in his office on the Pullman campus.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, signed into law Feb. 17 by President Barack Obama, allocates $4.5 billion for improvements to the power grid. According to federal guidelines, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is expected to begin announcing competitive grants related to the power grid by May 20.
Obama made the development of a “smart grid” a central component of his economic stimulus package, but Bose has been helping to make the electric power grid smarter for the past 35 years. He developed the software and algorithms that drive the control centers in use over much of the power grid. And, he and his colleagues at WSU are at the forefront of software development that could transform the grid for the demands of the 21st century.
 
Getting it together
According to the federal recovery bill, the DOE is authorized to fund projects in four main areas related to the power grid: developing demand-responsive equipment; improving reliability and security of the grid; energy storage research, development, demonstration and deployment; and facilitating recovery from energy disruptions.
WSU researchers are working in all of those areas. What’s most important, Bose said, is that WSU is creating software that will enable the various components of the grid to work together.
“What we are doing is really developing the software that is needed to manage the power grid,” he said. “Without that software, none of the other parts will do anything.”
Through technology being developed at WSU, grid operators will greatly expand their ability to plan for, monitor and respond to myriad demands on the power grid, including the challenges of incorporating the ebb and flow of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar.
 
Finessing fluctuations
The ability to precisely monitor and respond to changes in demand for electric power is badly needed and long overdue, Bose and other experts say. Aging infrastructure, population shifts away from industrial centers, unprecedented demand caused by the rise of digital technology, deregulation of electric utilities, and severe weather patterns — from ice storms to heat waves — are all factors that compromise the integrity of the power grid and have led to increasing blackouts in the last decade.
 
Between 1965 and 2005 there were a dozen major power outages affecting 1 million or more people in North America. In the four years since then, there have been 10.
Those blackouts, Bose says, come with a high cost — to the economy, to national security and to personal health and safety. 
 
For instance, when the U.S. power grid was disrupted and electricity went out in the Northeast and portions of the Midwest in 2003, 50 million people were affected. Economic losses were estimated at $7 billion, even though 60 percent of customers had power restored within 12 hours.
In the aftermath of that massive blackout, analysts made two recommendations: improve power grid operator training and improve the software used to monitor and manage the power grid, suggestions validated by Bose’s years of research.
 
Robust communication
In 1999 Bose, in collaboration with Carl Hauser and David Bakken, associate professors of computer science at WSU, began developing Gridstat, a next-generation communication system that delivers status information to participants in the power grid in a much more flexible and robust manner than is possible today.
The importance of Gridstat was affirmed in 2005 when Bose, Hauser and Bakken were selected to play a major role in a $7.5 million National Science Foundation-sponsored research initiative aimed at protecting the cybersecurity of the nation’s power grid.
Gridstat remains a theoretical concept, Bose said, working in “bits and pieces” in the laboratory using power grid data provided by Avista Utilities.
One of the challenges to implementing Gridstat — and to transforming the power grid generally with new and advanced applications — is that grids are interconnected but not seamless. The electric grid is a patchwork of power plants, transmission lines, distribution centers, utility companies and consumers, without an over-arching architecture or strategic plan for meeting future demands.
 
Powerful potential
Part of the excitement, Bose said, is that Obama’s emphasis on developing a smart grid might provide the necessary momentum for untangling the regulatory and public policy issues involved in creating a truly interconnected grid.
And, Bose said, he’s also hopeful that the excitement over developing a smart grid will attract more young people to power engineering. WSU has long been a strong presence in the power engineering industry, with WSU graduates working in power companies throughout the Northwest and across the country.
But, he said, the demand for power engineers has outstripped supply for decades. Now, nearly 40 percent of professionals in the field are near retirement. The opportunities for young engineers are abundant.
“This kind of power needs educated people” he said.