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Blackouts: anticipating and preventing the one-two punch


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

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

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