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PMUs' time to shine

I was pleased to note that almost $150 million of the smart grid investment grant funding announced on Tuesday was designated for phasor measurement units and related transmission/distribution projects. PMUs have always reminded me of the myth of “overnight fame” of rock stars – nobody notices all the years of toiling in relative obscurity, and suddenly, they’re in the spotlight. Years of industry work developing and refining PMUs, which were first researched by American Electric Power in the 1980s, and first developed in 1990s, have finally paid off.  The top award in the PMU arena, $53.9 million to the Western Electricity Council, will result in 250 new phasor measurement units across the Western Interconnection. The New York Independent System Operator will use its $37.38 million matching award to install 35 new PMUs and 19 phasor data concentrators; the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator received $13.7 million for a 150-PMU project; PJM Interconnection will install 90 PMUs with a $13.7 million matching grant; and the American Transmission Company received $11.4 million for its fiber-optics communications network to maximize full capability of phasor measurement networks across the company’s transmission system.  And so it goes. There were smaller, under-$5 million awards, as well: one to Entergy Services for $4.6 million, one to ISO New England for $3.7 million, a $3.9 million to Duke Energy Carolinas, a second $3.9 million award to ATC for a Wisconsin PMU project, and $712,257 to Midwest Energy for microprocessor-based protective relays and communications equipment for a substation. PMUs have definitely come into their own. But the question remains: what will utilities do with all that real-time data once they’re getting it?  Earlier this year, I spoke with Alison Silverstein, a project manager for the North American SynchroPhasor Initiative (NASPI), which is working to increase the use of PMUs to improve power system reliability and visibility through wide-area measurement and control. She told me very few utilities are currently using real-time data for automated response. NASPI is researching how to collect phasor data and use it for wide-area visualization, but there’s still a stretch to span between collecting the data and being able to effectively use it. Operators need information they can quickly use, not a lot of data. PMU data provides a means to an end, and more PMUs mean more usable data that can potentially be turned into actionable information. And in this sense, the addition of stimulus funds for PMUs is laudable. But, as American Electric Power’s manager of advanced transmission studies and technology, Navin Bhatt, told me last spring, the technology is still not mature, and is still evolving.  And there’s also the question of data sharing where regulatory compliance might come into play. Currently, utilities’ biggest problems with sharing their PMU data center around a concern that the data they provide can be used to hurt them either in a market context, a NERC-compliance context, or a security-sensitivity context. So, now that the DOE has stepped up to the starting line with funding, I think it’s high time the regulators step up as well, and sort out the potential issues new information provided by the intelligent utility might create, before they become a huge stumbling block in a race that has truly just begun.


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