Smart grid will wed modern computing with nanotechnology

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Sept. 19, 2003 — It is vital that the electric grid of the country be modernized if we are to have any hope of preventing future disruptions in the electricity supply like those just experienced in the Northeast, Midwest and Canada. And next time, it could be far worse than Aug. 14.

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The country’s political and especially economic well-being depends upon a reliable energy infrastructure. But the failure detection and remediation system of the national grid has major flaws and weaknesses beyond what we saw in August. The system was designed 50 years ago to automatically shut down at any sign of such a power surge.

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Who will build the smart grid of the future? How is the country to meet future electricity demand, which is projected to grow by 20 percent by 2020, while maintaining reliability, if the current system is stressed to its limits?

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Modern computer sensing, planning and control software could have prevented August’s shutdown in the first place by diverting power from the wave front using what are called smart power controllers. These employ computer control of thyristors, the electric grid’s equivalent of transistors and giant capacitors, to divert power from troubling congestion spots to underutilized grid lines — much as the Internet responds to failures and attacks with instantaneous response.

Widespread use of such software and hardware must be supplemented with far more advanced breakthroughs such as nanotechnologies that could revolutionize the capacity of the transmission wires themselves. New quantum wires made of carbon nanotube fibers must be developed and tested, in addition to superconductors and high-voltage DC lines. Nanotechnologies also offer the possibility for vast new electrical energy storage capacity that must be tested and connected into the smart grid.

Such quantum wires could have the electrical conductivity of copper, but at a sixth of the weight. Unlike today’s transmission cables, they wouldn’t sag dangerously into trees because of the nanotubes’ tensile strength. Places once too remote for power plants could become reachable, adding to the grid’s capacity. Energy also could be harvested from sources such as solar farms built in deserts around the world.

Texas is in a position to become the first to test nano and other advanced technologies related to transmission wires, environmental remediation, new generation technologies and other developments we can’t even imagine now related to the smart grid of the future. It has been a leader in electric grid development for 50 years, with its Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). The state is also unique in that its electric grid is largely self-contained, with only limited DC interconnections to Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

The Texas Energy Center was created with assistance from the Texas Legislature to lead in energy innovation. The center and the isolated ERCOT grid make Texas the ideal location to develop and test the smart grid of the future.

The Texas Energy Center, Columbia University and several Texas universities with nanotechnology initiatives are working with ERCOT and the state power industry to create a research and development test bed for the smart grid. Our plan is to create and provide a national test bed in Texas for software and hardware tools that will use simulations and learning to plan for modernization, prevention of cascading failures, and response and remediation in case of attacks from both natural and man-made events.

Working together, the utilities, independent system operators and research institutions can assume a leadership role in the task of modernizing this essential electricity grid.

A version of this column appeared on Aug. 19 in the Houston Chronicle.

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