NSF funds research to help predict structure for electric power transmission

Pamela Krewson Wertz
August 04, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State researchers have received funding from the National Science Foundation to develop a system that will assist the power industry in siting new transmission lines to accommodate a broad range of possible future evolutions of the power grid.

Mort Webster, associate professor of energy engineering in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, is the principal investigator (PI) on the three-year, $315,000 proposal, titled “Efficient and Scalable Methods for Multi-Stage Transmission Expansion Under Uncertainty.” Uday Shanbhag, Gary and Sheila Bello Chair Professor within the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, is the co-PI.

Within the power industry, transmission lines refer to the big metal structures with multiple conductors running from them that people typically see in remote places along a highway. Transmission lines carry power from power sources (power plants, wind generators, etc.) to distribution substations, which are the smaller power lines seen in a town. From there, the distribution lines carry power to homes, schools, farms and businesses. Distribution lines are managed separately from transmission lines within the power grid.

Webster and Shanbhag are working with PJM Interconnection LLC, a regional transmission organization (RTO) that is part of the Eastern Interconnection grid operating an electric transmission system that serves all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. PJM is providing access to its system and data to the researchers.

“Much of what RTOs do today, and what those organizations are really good at, is looking ahead maybe five or 10 years down the line and asking, ‘As more people move into the area or leave the area, as more technology that requires electric power emerges on the market and more power plants are built to account for the increase in power usage, where should we build these new transmission lines so no one is ever without power?’ and they have a computer system that can handle that,” said Webster.

Making things even more difficult is the amount of time it takes for one high-voltage transmission line to be built in the United States. From start to finish, it typically takes nearly 10 years – more than nine years to get zoning approval from all of the jurisdictions that are affected and six months to string the line. During that time, factors such as population, new technology that requires power, and alternative power sources are all changing.

Webster went on to explain that the power industry is already behind the times, noting that since the current system was established in the 1950s, it has essentially been patched and re-patched as new power sources and technologies emerge and as the population in the United States grows. That way of “tweaking a system,” he says, is not sustainable over the next 100 years.

“It doesn’t work efficiently, it is expensive to operate, it limits job growth and isn’t good for the country’s economy,” he said.

The goal of this research project is to design a tool to help RTOs design the future of the power grid system.

“Our job here at Penn State is to move the state-of-the-art to the next level,” said Webster. “If we are successful, we will have built a system that RTOs around the country can use to analyze all of the scenarios that could possibly happen over the next 50 to 100 years and that will affect the amount of power needed, and determine the best structure of a new power grid.”

The cross-disciplinary project is funded through NSF’s Division of Electrical, Communications Cyber Systems and brings together collaborators from Penn State’s Colleges of Earth and Mineral Sciences and Engineering. In addition to Webster and Shanbhag, two industrial engineering graduate students will be working on the project, which will start in September.

”Current planning procedures are severely hindered by the absence of efficient and scalable algorithms for contending with the massive computational problems expected to emerge from the sheer size of the network and the presence of uncertainty,” said Shanbhag. “We intend to develop a breadth of algorithms that can both contend with the uncertainty and cope with the scale of the planning problem.”

The research also supports Penn State’s Initiative for Sustainable Electric Power.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 15, 2017