Making the U.S. power grid smarter, more resilient

Researchers from Vanderbilt and two other universities charged with reinventing and protecting America’s power grid are taking their first solutions on a demonstration tour.

Their idea is to build an underlying, open-source software platform to support decentralized applications that boost the power grid’s resilience and protect it from dangers ranging from terrorists to tree branches. The platform is also designed to quarantine problems while the rest of the system runs normally and to allow for seamless transition among wind and solar power, batteries, generators and traditional coal-fired and nuclear power plants as needed.

Gabor Karsai

“Resilience is of national importance, and what we’re building is information systems technology that can tie together the different elements of a smart grid and make it more reliable by adding computing to the components,” said Gabor Karsai, associate director of Vanderbilt’s Institute for Software Integrated Systems and lead researcher on the project. “What this means is, if there’s a fault in one part of the system, we can react faster, inform other parts of the system and take action to protect the grid.”

Researchers will showcase their progress at the 8th ACM/IEEE International Conference on Cyber-Physical Systems in Pittsburgh beginning April 18 and the 20th IEEE International Symposium on Real-Time Computing in Toronto beginning May 16.

Matching microgrids

The team, which includes Washington State and North Carolina State, designed a microgrid controller that calculates and monitors voltages and phase angles, using inverters to change those when necessary. That allows microgrids to match perfectly with main power grids so that, for example, if the wind suddenly blows at hurricane strength or stops altogether, wind-powered turbines instantly disconnect or pull in power from traditional sources.

“If that happens and voltages and phase angles aren’t the same, and you flip the switch, something will blow up. Literally,” Karsai said.

This electrical circuit diagram shows various loads — such as customers’ homes, hospitals and factories — the various energy sources and how they are wired together. The red, green and blue rectangles show, small embedded computers where the new software can run and control the power system. (Graphic by Institute for Software Integrated Systems)


Their platform, called Resilient Information Architecture Platform for Decentralized Smart Systems (RIAPS), is made possible by the added computational layer of fog computing. Unlike the cloud, the fog is close enough to the problem to handle these complex transactions in milliseconds.

But relying on computing infrastructure away from centralized data centers increases the likelihood of failure, said Abhishek Dubey, a Vanderbilt co-investigator on the project, so the team addressed that.

“We’re designing distributed services into the platform, and those detect and manage failures and then systematically reconfigure the applications if the faults persist,” said Dubey, an assistant professor of computer science.

New platform apps

The team also is demonstrating two apps that go on top of the platform: one for power providers and the other for consumers.

Abhishek Dubey

The first monitors demand and adjusts the market price. The second monitors the price and sets thermostats in homes and offices to achieve the highest savings – not necessarily based on what’s most comfortable. The Nest is the closest technology to the home-based app, but it only communicates with Google and not with other apps as the RIAPS version does.

Vanderbilt’s Institute for Software Integrated Systems is partnering with Professor Anurag Srivastava at Washington State University and Professor Srdjan Lukic at North Carolina State University, both nationally recognized experts in power systems.

The work is funded by a $3.5 million award from ARPA-E’s OPEN 2015 program, a call to scientists and engineers for transformational technologies outside the scope of ARPA-E’s existing focused programs. ARPA-E funds technologies that display technical promise and commercial impact but are too early for private-sector investment.

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