Electronic Design

Tiny Controller Stabilizes Power Grids

The August 2003 Northeast blackout may seem like an unpleasant memory, but the nation’s power grids still are vulunerable to sudden peaks in demand, malfunctions, and intentional attack. Yet an IC developed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory can provide stability as well as peace of mind.

In the North American power grid, a 60-Hz disturbance can indicate a serious imbalance between supply and demand that could lead to a blackout. The Grid Friendly Appliance Controller can be installed in typical household appliances to monitor system frequency (see the figure).

When the controller senses a disruption, it can respond in a quarter of a second to shut the appliances off for a few minutes or even a few seconds, giving the grid a chance to stabilize and avoid a blackout. It can even be programmed to delay restart to ease power restoration when the grid is stabilized. And, only the minimum number of appliances would be triggered so they don’t cause further destabilization.

According to the researchers, consumers won’t even notice the controller’s operation. Food would stay fresh in refrigerators, and hot water would still be available when needed. And while the controller currently costs about $25 per appliance, researchers say integrating the device in appliances at the factory could cut that to a few dollars each.

Mass deployment the Grid Friendly Appliance Controller would have positive effects on the grid in addition to preventing blackouts. Improving grid reliability would reduce the need to build new power plants, reducing overall energy costs. Also, reducing demand through the controller would cut down on power-plant greenhouse gas emissions.

The contoller is ready for licensing and installation. PNNL is now working with appliance manufacturers to use the technology in test-bed and demonstration projects.

For more information, go to pnl.gov

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