A smarter way of looking at power

U professor advocates for "smart self-healing grid" to boost U.S. energy security

Massoud Amin has been all too close to some major disasters. On 9/11 he was in Washington, DC, presenting at a workshop (on, of all things, disaster risk-management), when the plane attacks effectively ended the proceedings. And on August 1, 2007, he witnessed the collapse of the I-35W bridge from his office window.

Coincidentally and perhaps fittingly, Amin, director of the U’s Technological Leadership Institute, has devoted much of his time and energy to averting disasters. Most of his work focuses on developing a “smart, self-healing grid” for delivering electric power in the United States, which he says would save money and offer increased security to the nation’s infrastructure.

First off, it’s helpful to define just what a “smart grid” is. According to Amin, the term, which he began using 12 years ago, refers to the use of computer, communications, sensing, and control technology—operating in conjunction with an electric power grid—to enhance the reliability of electric power delivery. A smart grid minimizes the cost of electric energy to consumers; improves security, quality, and resilience; and meshes easily with new generating sources like wind and solar.

It also uses the sensing and control technologies to deal with unforeseen events, minimizing their impact.

And, as Amin points out, “unforeseen events” are leading to an ever-increasing rate of power outages. The number of non-disaster-related U.S. power outages affecting 50,000 or more consumers increased from 186 during 2001-2005 to 297 from 2006 to May 2010. These outages and quality disturbances cost the U.S. economy from $80 billion to $188 billion per year.

Some of the most reliable utilities are in the midwestern states of Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas, where the power is out an average of only 92 minutes per year—compared to 214 minutes in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. But compare that to Japan, which averages only four minutes of total interrupted service each year.

“I cannot imagine how anyone could believe that in the United States we should learn to ‘cope’ with these increasing blackouts—and that we don’t have the technical know-how, the political will, or the money to bring our power grid up to 21st-century standards,” Amin says. “And it is not just a matter of ‘can.’ We must, if the United States is to continue to be an economic power.”

Investing in our future

Amin acknowledges that developing a smart grid in America will be costly; integrating the technology within the existing grid will cost from $150 billion to $170 billion over a 10- to 20-year period. He also suggests that an overhaul of the entire electricity infrastructure is in order, which would cost $1.5 to $1.7 trillion over 20 years.

But once in place, a smart grid would pay for itself by increasing efficiency by 5 percent ($20.4 billion in savings annually) and reducing the costs of outages by about $49 billion per year, he says. It would also reduce emissions by 12-18 percent, increase overall energy security, and spur economic growth.

Because our nation’s economy depends on a smarter solution

At the University, Amin and his team of doctoral students in electrical and computer engineering continue to work on smart grid concepts, including the integration of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to the grid, power grid simulation, and risk assessment for large-scale networks. He also hopes to someday transform the U’s Twin Cities campus into a “SmartGridU.”

At stake, Amin says, is what century Americans see themselves in.

“A key challenge before us is whether the electricity infrastructure which underpins our economy, society, and quality of life will evolve to become the primary support for the 21st century’s digital society—a smart grid with self-healing capabilities that powers our innovation,” he says. Or will it be “left behind as a 20th-century industrial relic? And what are the costs of not implementing change?”

Adds Amin: “Our $14 trillion economy—all aspects of it—depends on reliable, disturbance-free access to electricity.” Photo caption: The nation's $14 trillion economy is critically dependent on electricity. Massoud Amin and his team at the U are working to make the delivery of that electricity smarter and more efficient.