The Solution to the Power Grid? Divide and Conquer
The power grid in the United States is sorely in need for an upgrade. Much of the infrastructure was created decades ago and today, the U.S. grid suffers more power outages than any other developed nation. That’s not an inconvenience; it’s a drain on the nation's economy. Each time the grid goes down, it can lead to many millions or even billions of dollars of economic losses,
Brett Murphy from Real-Time Innovations (RTI), the winner of this year’s Industrial Internet Consortium Testbed Award, is working on a solution. The company and its partners are developing a communication and control testbed that divides the power grid into a series of distributed microgrids to make it easier to manage and more accommodating of renewable energy.
Upgrading the Old-Fashioned Power Grid
Part of the problem with the traditional power grid is that it was so monolithic. Typically, energy from large remote power plants would be distributed over transmission lines to cities and towns many miles away. This system is susceptible to natural disasters and attacks from everything from squirrels to tree branches to hackers. Adding in power from renewable sources like wind farms, solar power plants, and solar panels on houses just adds to the complexity. Because the power from renewable energy is typically intermittent, the utility can’t just turn off power to the part of the grid using green energy. It still has to be able to offer backup power in case something goes awry or something changes. Rooftop solar panels, for instance, could stop producing energy within a matter of seconds as a result of changing weather, or they could get damaged or the light going to them could be blocked by a construction project.
“There are a lot of folks who think you can’t really get above 20 to 40% of any power source with solar,” says Brett Murphy, director business development, industrial internet of things at RTI. “If you want to go higher, you need a smart grid.” It is simply not feasible for the current system to respond to a dip in power caused by a cloud suddenly blocking light from the sun. “I would need to have a battery backup nearby that can kick in. If the battery starts to get low, then you can spin up again with a generator someplace, and you optimize the entire system. That requires smarts everywhere.”
A Short History of RTI’s Microgrid Technology
About two years ago, RTI began developing a smart power grid approach that is scalable, resilient, and secure. “Phase one of the project was to put together a proof of concept,” Murphy recounts. RTI’s approach is to put intelligence and peer-to-peer communication at the edge. Working with partners, the company is creating a communication control framework that would solve the needs of microgrid applications.
Phase two is introducing advanced technology known as TSN—a time sensitive network— a deterministic Ethernet designed to synchronize the grid to growing complexity. The TSN is also designed to accommodate the unique demands of renewable energy. The system can potentially accommodate a grid that runs completely on renewable energy.
“Theoretically, if you had 100% penetration of solar, you would need to coordinate all of the inverters that are converting direct current from the solar rays into alternating current. Those inverters need to be synchronized. They all have to be in phase,” Murphy says. “That requires pretty good time synchronization between inverters. TSN provides that.”
RTI acknowledges the need for working with partners when reimagining the power grid. Its collaborators include Oak Ridge National, National Instruments, Duke University, CPS Energy, and Cisco.
Security will be a growing focus as the company ramps up to phase 3 of the project: field deployment. “Security is already an issue in the current grid,” Murphy explains. “If you make it smarter, you have a larger surface area for cyber-attacks. That is a question we still have to work on. Luckily, at the IIC we have lots of security partners to help.”
For now, however, the company is working on refining the technology so that it is business viable. “That is what the test beds are for,” Murphy says.