Electronic Design

Post-Blackout Push Creates Opportunity For Engineers

While most of you practice the science of power management on a daily basis, for the rest of the population, the Great Blackout transformed "power management" from something taken for granted to an issue of utmost urgency. A report on NPR on my drive home this evening suggested that the U.S. needs to spend as much as $100 billion to modernize "the grid," noting that Thomas Edison would have no problem walking into a "modern" switching station and recognizing virtually all of the essential components.

The IEEE, which has been strongly lobbying for grid upgrade, took advantage of the media platform afforded by the blackout to underscore what it sees as the urgent need for Congress to enact stronger electricity reliability standards for utilities. "If left uncorrected, the decline in the quality and reliability of electric power will continue to imperil the lives of our citizens and seriously impact the nation's economy," says IEEE-USA president Jim Leonard.

IEEE-USA supports legislation empowering the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to create a self-regulating electric-reliability organization (ERO). Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed ERO legislation as part of their respective comprehensive energy policy packages. IEEE-USA has urged both houses to to resolve remaining differences between the two bills and pass an energy bill with strong ERO provisions.

Assuming post-blackout momentum helps propel these bills through Congress and that federal funds for upgrading will follow (the Bush administration is calling for $50 billion to $60 billion for upgrading the grid), it seems to me that Electronic Design readers, with your knowledge of power management, have a golden opportunity to help bring the grid out of the era of Edison and into the age of nanoscience.

What sorts of technologies might an EE want to become familiar with to be at the center of this upcoming upgrade spree? The IEEE points to five existing technologies that will likely be applied to upgrading the grid:

  1. FACTS (flexible ac transmission systems);
  2. HTS (high-temperature superconductor) cable;
  3. SMES (superconducting magnetic energy storage);
  4. Fault-current limiters;
  5. High-voltage direct current.

While a major grid upgrade seems inevitable, such a massive, government-funded initiative will take time. Meanwhile, the blackout has prompted private business to immediately shore up protection of data assets in the event of future blackouts. The blackout boosted to companies working on innovations in fuel cells and other backup technology, like Metallic Power (www.metallicpower.com), which is marketing a zinc regenerative fuel cell that replaces lead-acid batteries.

The market leader in uninterruptible power-supply (UPS) technology, APC, is well positioned to tap into spiking market demand for power-management technology. APC's Black Out Support Center on its Web site includes a network-critical physical infrastructure vulnerability assessment, a top-ten protection checklist, a power-problem primer, and more.

While APC, as a public company, doesn't want to issue any forward-looking statements about upcoming sales results, company spokesperson Ron Seridian points to the 2001 California blackout's positive impact on APC's sales, particularly within the small office/home office (SOHO) segment and via the retail segment of distribution.

Corporate users, says Seridian, are generally savvy about protecting mission-critical data with UPS, but some segments have learned the hard way via the blackout that they need "to do better" in UPS performance. The weak link in most UPS installations, he says, is system batteries, which may not be monitored closely enough over the multiyear life of a typical UPS system.

APC's customer base includes many of the largest data banks and server farms, and these "power users" have a special relationship with the grid, says Michael Profitt, director of marketing for enterprise systems at APC. These large users, says Profitt, need to take a look at their power flow "not only within the building, but also what kind of signals are going to be put back out onto the grid," making sure that there isn't a lot of projection in terms of noise and heat.

Profitt notes that these firms may be able to "give back" to the grid in some innovative ways. "Larger data centers typically have generators attached to the UPS. When electric companies are getting close to peak demand, they will ask the data center to go to generator and free up demand on the grid. They can also back-feed additional current onto the grid and do reverse charging-and they get a substantial discount off the energy bill," says Profitt.

Post your innovative ideas on upgrading the grid at www.elecdesign.com with the online version of this article.

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