What’s wrong with the grid? It’s dumb; sensors might make it smarter

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Aug. 19, 2003 — Even as the energy industry struggles to understand why last week’s massive eight-state blackout occurred, experts are examining ways in which small tech could help prevent it from happening again. And they’re finding at least one new way to make the grid run more efficiently: microsensors.

Not only more efficiently, but “smarter.”

The MEMS-based systems can do that by circulating up-to-date information about what’s going on within the power systems, said John Stringer, technical director at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit utilities consortium based in Palo Alto, Calif.

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“The sensor and the system that produces the corrections have to be closely integrated,” Stringer said. “That’s what we mean when we say the system has to be smarter.”

He and his EPRI colleague Arun Mehta, manager of fuels technology, are compiling their research into microsystems and nanotech for the energy grid. “The electric industry has not started to look at this in a way they should,” Stringer said.

“There are more and more companies talking about power lines and transmission, in terms of MEMS technologies,” said Marlene Bourne, senior MEMS analyst with In-Stat/MDR.

“Really, this is all first-generation. It’s good ideas, and companies who are supplying sensors are interested in building this wireless-sensing infrastructure into the field. The electricity companies seem to be really interested.”

At the same time, the federal government is expected to react to the blackout by pouring new money into research and development that will buttress the grid. Influential policymakers like Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee; Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., House energy subcommittee chairwoman; presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.; and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger have all touted nanotechnology as a possible energy savior.

And Rice University professor and Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley spends a lot of time talking to people in Washington about the intersections of energy, nanotechnology and the federal government. He and others are pushing for a federal commitment of billions of dollars to develop nanotech energy applications.

Among the solutions Smalley advocates for enhancing the electrical grid is what he calls quantum wires to replace today’s high-voltage transmission cables. Quantum wires are nanotube fibers that have the electrical conductivity of copper wire with a fraction of the weight.

Such wires would increase the capacity of the grid by allowing the energy industry to harvest electricity from alternate sources such as solar concentrators built in remote Western deserts. “That’s real estate that doesn’t do squat but it is blessed with solar (power),” Smalley said.

He also argues nanotechnology will play a role in the fuel cells and energy storage systems needed to develop smart local power networks. A grid based on local networks would be immune from massive outages because it would generate and store energy locally but have the capability of shipping or receiving it to other networks when needed.

If the topic wasn’t exactly hot before last Thursday, the blackouts will make it warmer in Washington.

At least one utility has already started exploring small tech. Workers at Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), a $26 billion electric utility in New Jersey, confront a problem every day: sparks in transformers that can destroy the $2 million machines and even start fires that level entire power stations. It’s a problem with which all electric utilities wrestle.

The utility teamed up with the New Jersey Institute of Technology to develop a MEMS acoustic sensor that could be placed directly into transformers’ oil. The sensor is an ear-like probe that can listen for the sounds of sparks, said Harry Roman, a PSEG technology development and transfer consultant. The collaboration has led to a microsensor, still being tested, that is attuned to the sounds sparks make and can pinpoint their location.

The company and university are also working on sensors that will alert engineers to the movements of underground cables, as well as a “smart splice,” a sensor attached by helicopter to splices in high-voltage transmission lines that will transmit data to engineers. It’s important that engineers understand what’s going on with the splices before they break, shutting down power and dropping power lines hundreds of feet to the ground.

“In the movie ‘Twister,’ they are trying to get the tornado to suck up all of these radio transmitters so they can map the interior of a tornado,” Roman said. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to get these sensors distributed around our system so we can know more intelligently what is going on.

“The question is,” he added, “can we go beyond the fence, go onto the pole lines, into the lines themselves, the cables. It’s like looking at the utility infrastructure as a skeleton and trying to stretch an intelligent skin over it. The nerves are the microsensors. They will be the first line of information to bring the data into us.

Outside of sensors, solar cells might also have a near-term impact on the industry. They could aid in distributed generation — a growing trend in which people use devices to either supplant or complement the power they get from the grid. The more distributed the generation, the less dependent users are on the grid.

Current work at companies like Nanosys Inc. in California and Konarka Technologies in Massachusetts will lead to cheaper, versatile, flexible and more efficient solar cells.

Nanosys has scheduled a 2006 release for solar cells integrated into roof shingles that produce energy at a cost of about $1 a watt, making solar power comparable with fossil fuels, said Stephen Empedocles, the company’s co-founder and director of business development.

At Konarka, solar cells are composed of nanometer-scale crystals of semiconductor covered with light-absorbing dye. The dye oxidizes, electrons travel through a wire that powers the electronic device, and then the electron re-enters the cell, getting absorbed by an electrolyte solution.

As the technology becomes more mature and efficient, smart power companies will invest in discovering ways to use it to, as Konarka President Bill Beckenbaugh said, “put power back into the grid.”

Small Times Features Editor Candace Stuart contributed to this report.

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