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NSF funds research to help predict structure for electric power transmission

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 and mining 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.

Read full article at Penn State News