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Smart grid and understanding yesterday

Two Cut out Fuse Connected

The scenario is part dream, part nightmare. Definitely not real, but within the realm of imagination. The stuff of movies.

In the movies, an airline pilot falls ill, is felled by bad guys, etc. The brave passenger (possibly Harrison Ford) fights his way to the cockpit, stares in terror at the banks of controls. Lives, including his, hang in the balance. Over the radio, a grim but tough pilot on the ground talks him through landing the big bird.

Well, a nine-hour IEEE Power and Energy Society course, innocuously titled, "Power System Basics: Understanding the Electric Utility Operation Inside and Out," can induce this feverish fantasy.

Start, at 8 a.m., with the fact that a mere 25 milliamps will upset the electrical impulses of the human heart, likely leading to death, then contemplate working with 765 kilovolt transmission lines. That certainly explains my line of work, inflicting readers with my viewpoints from the safety of a keyboard rather than, say, earn my pay as a lineman.

Of course, I already know this because I've done the basic homeowners' electrical work on my house. But take a bucket up to a distribution line or climb a transmission tower? Journalism, even in this day and age of perform or starve, looks real good.

Review the basics of three-phase power generation, particularly after a recent coal-fired power plant tour (Colorado Springs Utilities' Drake Power Plant), and this beast (the grid) begins to become real. Coal, natural gas, nuclear and the steam turbine design and its limits follow.

Time to ponder the twin equations of voltage (E) = current (I) x resistance (R) and power (P) = current (I) x voltage (E) and you're off to the races. Oh yeah, there's more to know, such as Ohm's Law, but hey, this is a column, not a tutorial.

There's transformer design for optimal stepping up and stepping down of voltage. There's transmission tower and system design. Smarts all the way from generation to that step-down transformer. Boom. Visibility ends. Distribution substations just waiting for sensors and controls. Circuit breakers, switches, regulators, capacitors. Volts and VARs. Power quality.

In my mind, I'm Harrison Ford (okay, not really) grappling with the controls.

Then poles and wires in my neighborhood. Suddenly, those cylinders (yep, transformers) and shock-absorbing gadgets look familiar.

Hey, there's someone down below (obviously I'm having an out-of-body experience) swapping out electro-mechanical meters for interval meters.

It's going well. Seems like I might land the plane safely. Then someone mentions "balancing the system." A generator goes down. An oscillation begins due to a tree limb on a transmission line. The natural gas fields in Texas have shut down due to cold and my fuel won't arrive as anticipated.

Now someone behind me is yelling about a "steady state instability" and the plane is acting awfully weird and the guy on the radio is insisting I stay cool and "balance the system."

That's when the dream (and analogy) gets fuzzy and the IEEE instructor, Tony Sleva, technical manager of electrical engineering at Altran, suddenly is saying that he hoped the day was informative and any questions are welcome.

I'm a tad shaken, Harrison Ford is nowhere to be seen and I'm just glad that I face a blank page and not one of those 765 kilovolt transmission lines.

And I haven't even begun to think about distribution system automation, smart meters, integrating a ton of intermittent renewable energy and a slew of disgruntled consumers.

I've been underground where coal is mined and in the mountains where uranium is found and here in the IEEE PES Plain Talk series I've developed a renewed respect for the grid and the people who enable me to switch on the lights. And that's long before visibility gets down to the distribution system.

More to come.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily




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