Study examines power

By Kristen Sackley

The national power grid was originally created to connect power in cities so they would have a backup source of power in case something short-circuited. Now the grid has turned into a complex issue involving money, economics and technology, all of which University researchers are trying to understand.

The national power grid is made of the cables and generators that create power and connect it to everyone in the U.S.

Pete Sauer and George Gross, both professors of electrical and computer engineering, are studying the different effects that the grid has on the U.S. They are also measuring these effects to see how close the country may be getting to another blackout, like the one that occurred in New York City in 2003, Sauer said.

“I do research in reactive power. How do we know if we have enough? And if we don’t have enough, what do we do about it? How close are we from a blackout due to reactive power?” Sauer said.

Reactive power is what it takes to run the power sources. Consumers aren’t charged for it on their electric bill, but it still is being used, Sauer said.

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Not having enough reactive power is a partial cause of the blackouts, and the tricky part is convincing companies to make more reactive power instead of power that they are getting rewarded and paid for, Sauer said.

“If (companies) produce reactive power, then they don’t have enough real power,” Sauer said. “They need to figure out how to reward people to make it. It was a voltage problem in 2003. That means there isn’t enough reactive power being supplied.”

Sauer said the problem is where the power companies mindsets are about the use of the grid.

“The philosophy was not to make money like it is now,” Sauer said. “There has been a whole mentality shift. It used to be altruistic; people were proud to keep the grid going. Today it’s more competitive; people won’t just do something to help out. It’s for a price.”

Gross, although an engineer, studies the economic aspect of the issue and what can be done about it.

“The returns are very good in terms of building generators, as opposed to putting (capital) into transmission lines. We need more transmission lines in order for the system to function properly,” Gross said.

Gross compared the old transmission lines to a highway built in the Eisenhower era that has never had any renovations, which wouldn’t still be standing today, he said.

“Those transmission lines are now being used essentially as common carriers. Because they are being used as common carriers, there is supposed to be no discriminatory usage. But they were not constructed for that purpose,” Gross said.

Gross said that new technology to update the transmission lines and the system would be very expensive.

“If we had a demand sufficiently large, we could bring (costs) down so it wouldn’t be expensive. At the same time, if it was cheap, people would use it,” Gross said.

Both Gross and Sauer said that blackouts are inevitable, but keeping them from happening often is the key.