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Grid Sentinel: Software Tools Help Utilities Prevent Widespread Power Outages

Much of North America’s world-class electricity system faces serious challenges. Major questions about reliability, affordability and bottlenecks impact every business and every household. The shortest outages grind business to a halt. If a section of the grid has a massive problem like the 2003 blackout in the northeast, the current solution is to shut down adjacent systems-leading to even more extensive areas without power.

Grid Sentinel

Grid Sentinel has developed analytical software tools that integrate with a utility’s hardware to pinpoint the exact location of a fault along transmission lines so repair crews can be dispatched to problem sites much more rapidly.

“Utilities need a more efficient, more accurate way to pinpoint where a problem is along the transmission lines,” says Dr. Lee Wang, president of Grid Sentinel. “Our system gets the lights on sooner and more cost effectively.”

Grid Sentinel has been located in the Bethlehem-based Ben Franklin Business Incubator since 2004. The company has developed analytical software tools that integrate with a utility’s hardware to better identify the location of a fault that is occurring along the transmission lines. Using the tools, repair crews can be dispatched to the source of the transmission problem more rapidly. When a problem occurs, substations collect and transmit data back to a control center. There, engineers identify the general area of the grid where the fault or outage is located.

“Currently, substations do send a limited amount of intelligence to the engineers back in the office, but it’s not highly actionable data,” says Dr. Wang. “All they are being told, for example, is that there’s a short or power cut somewhere along this 32-mile stretch of line. The utilities then send six guys in two trucks or a couple guys in a helicopter to narrow down the precise location of the problem-a process that can take hours. Our technology can pinpoint the fault location quickly and accurately, saving time and money.”

A Clear Need in the Marketplace

The need for Grid Sentinel’s technology became readily apparent in the August 2003 blackout in the Northeast, which renewed public concern about increasing demand on an aging power grid. Since 2004, Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP) has invested $214,000 in the company to refine and begin marketing the technology.

“BFTP has been very helpful getting things started,” Dr. Wang says. “The money, the incubator, the connections, the business assistance has all been invaluable.”

While electricity demand has increased by about 25 percent since 1990, construction of transmission facilities decreased about 30 percent. In fact, annual investment in new transmission facilities has declined over the past 25 years. Wholesale revamping of our electrical grid isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Technologies that improve the existing electric system are desperately needed.

“More intelligent hardware is being used to collect data at the substation level,” Wang notes. Grid Sentinel is able to make the most of this data by helping utilities remotely access the data and quickly interpret it with high precision not seen in the industry.

It is estimated that power outages and power quality disturbances cost the U.S. economy as much as $180 billion annually-and this doesn’t account for the inconvenience cost to consumers and businesses that are forced to do without power, even for short periods of time. With about 157,000 miles of high voltage (greater than 230kV) electric transmission lines in America, electric utilities have a lot of ground to cover, and Grid Sentinel is poised to make that daunting task a whole lot easier.

Getting the Power Back on Sooner

Grid Sentinel’s suite of scalable, Internet-based engineering solutions allow for real-time access, analysis and diagnosis of power grid information. The company is piloting its product with several large energy companies including ConEd and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

When the average person thinks of transmission lines, they think of massive towers with high-tension wires. However, the impact of Grid Sentinel’s solutions on time and cost savings are even greater when looking at needing to pinpoint and access underground power cables, especially in major metropolitan areas.

“Our method of pinpointing the source of a problem is 20 times more accurate than traditional methods,” says Dr. Wang. “Compare knowing exactly which city block needs to be shut down with having to explore 20 blocks worth of underground transmission line. It can save many hours of precious-and expensive-time.”

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This article was featured in
Keynotes June, 2007
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