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Blackouts: anticipating and preventing the one-two punch

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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One year ago, 10% of the world’s population found themselves suddenly without power. The root cause of the largest blackout in history was later identified as combination of a tripped line and relay issue – a one-two punch that the region was not prepared to handle. This month, at the IEEE Power and Energy Society Meeting, a team of MIT researchers will present an algorithm that could be used to prevent this type of issue from wreaking havoc in the future.

Developed by MIT Mechanical Engineering Professor Konstantin Turitsyn and graduate student Petr Kaplunovich, this algorithm’s focus is on identifying points in the electric grid where combinations of two events can cause widespread problems. The algorithm can be used to monitor, in real time, events occurring in the grid. It then flags instances where pairs of component failures would likely lead to big problems.

In power systems, these types of failure incidents are referred to as an “N minus 2 contingency” where “N” refers to the total number of components in the system and “2″ is the number of failures. In the case of the 2012 India blackout, failure 1 was a tripped line and failure 2 was a failed relay. Independently, these failures would be unlikely to cause wideapread issues. But, combined, these failures caused massive problems.

A primary goal of MIT’s algorithm is to identify these risky combinations in order to give utilities the chance to address risks before they lead to blackouts.

Photo Credit: Photo of night lights in USA by NASA via flikr

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. IowaScienceInterface 10:29 am 07/9/2013

    Dealing with these issues will only get more difficult as the grid takes on more renewable energy sources like wind and solar. While carbon-friendly, these add uncertainty to the system. Researchers are investigating mathematical approaches to optimize operations under uncertainty. See the ASCR Discovery website for one such project at Argonne National Laboratory: http://ascr-discovery.science.doe.gov/kernels/gridopt1.shtml

    Full disclosure: I write for and edit ASCR Discovery.

    Link to this

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