Professor Dan Trudnowski agreed to take a stab at crafting for a lay audience a description of what the research team had accomplished.
A fellow researcher, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, characterized the product of the research and development team’s work as a “game changer.”
But first, the back story.
Trudnowski’s early research during a 2011 sabbatical from Montana Tech, where he is a professor of electrical engineering, a department head and an interim dean, helped generate a series of collaborations that ultimately yielded an innovative power grid technology that could help prevent cascading power surges and blackouts and also save big money for both utilities and consumers.
The new smart-grid system won a prestigious R&D 100 Award in November, recognition that Trudnowski says ranks Montana Tech in the big leagues of research and development players such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.
Along the way, dating back to a research grant received by Montana Tech in 2011, with more grant funding to follow, Trudnowski’s collaborators have included: John Hauer, a former mentor who worked for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Montana Tech electrical engineering colleagues Matt Donnelly and Josh Wold, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Bonneville Power Administration and Sandia National Laboratories.
So, what’s the new technology lauded by the R&D 100 awards program, which, since 1963, has identified and celebrated “the top 100 revolutionary technologies of the past year?”
Trudnowski’s explanation opened with a couple of facts.
“The western North American power grid stretches from northern Canada to the Mexico border, and from California to the Midwest,” he said. “It is one of the largest interconnected grids in the world.”
This grid is often referred to as the Western Interconnection.
Trudnowski, who is interim dean of Montana Tech’s School of Mines and Engineering, offered an analogy: “Just as dropping a rock into a lake causes a ripple across the entire surface, large disturbances within the grid electrically ripple across the entire grid.”
One example of a large disturbance would be a lightning strike on a major transmission line, he said.
“A disturbance in Montana can ripple all the way to southern California. If the grid is heavily loaded, these ripples can increase to a dangerous level, resulting in major blackouts,” Trudnowski said.
As a result, he said, today’s power grids often operate below “thermal capacity” — which is the absolute limit of power that can be pushed down a transmission line — to avoid these ripples, more technically described as “inter-area oscillations.”
“Many of today’s grids could operate closer to their thermal capacities if technologies existed to dampen the oscillations,” Trudnowski said.
Enter the award-winning “Control System for Active Damping of Inter-Area Oscillations.”
Trudnowski said the damping controller “automatically senses the electrical ripples, or oscillations, and dampens them” by pulsing power into the grid at key points. The process is akin to that of a vehicle’s automated braking system, he said.
A prototype of the damping controller is poised to inject power pulses when necessary to the “Pacific DC Intertie,” the transmission line that sends electricity from Northern Oregon to Southern California, to dampen “inter-area oscillations.”
Trudnowski said Montana Tech has received a total of nearly $800,000, primarily since 2013, to aid in research and development of the control system for damping the “ripples,” or oscillations, that have the potential to cause widespread power outages.
David Schoenwald, an engineer with Sandia National Laboratories, was part of the team that developed the control system.
He said Trudnowski and Donnelly provided key expertise during the long and complex process that turned years of research into a prototype.
Schoenwald described Trudnowski as “one of the foremost authorities on the analysis of dynamic behavior in the inter-area oscillations of the Western Interconnection.” He said Donnelly is an expert in the use of a specific device that measures electrical waves on a power grid.
He said the system designed by the team has important implications for the future.
“Today, many electric power grids operate well below transmission capacity to avoid widespread outages due to inter-area oscillations,” Schoenwald said. “The new control system improves electric power grid reliability by continuously damping inter-area oscillations, allowing for greater power transfer.”
He described the system as “the first successful grid demonstration of feedback control using real-time wide-area measurements in North America, making it a game changer by demonstrating how to change the existing grid into the future smart grid.”
Meanwhile, Schoenwald said the R&D 100 Award is a significant honor. He said the awards have been referred to as the “Oscars of invention.”
Trudnowski agreed that the award is deeply satisfying.
“It’s a big deal to us engineering geeks,” he said.