3-D helps officials better monitor power demand, manage markets

March 02, 2000

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- As the electric power industry becomes increasingly competitive, knowledge concerning the capacity and constraints of the electrical generation and distribution system will become a commodity of great value. Researchers at the University of Illinois are developing innovative methods for visualizing the wealth of data associated with the power system network, with an emphasis on the use of interactive animation techniques to aid decision makers.

"Like the stock exchange, people who buy and sell electricity need to make informed decisions quickly," said Thomas Overbye, a UI professor of electrical and computer engineering. "Electricity markets can be fast changing, and understanding the implications of these changes before others can give an important competitive advantage. Our overall goal is to present information in a more easily comprehensible form to facilitate informed, fast decision-making."

The interconnected electric transmission grid in North America is one of the largest and most complex man-made systems ever assembled. "The grid consists of billions of components, millions of miles of wire, and thousands of generators," Overbye said. "Failures in one location can quickly propagate through the system and affect millions of customers with losses reaching billions of dollars."

Because there is no mechanism to efficiently store electrical energy, total electrical generation must equal total load plus losses at all times. This continual matching must occur even as the load on the transmission grid constantly varies, but the grid has finite -- and difficult to quantify -- capabilities to transfer power. Efficiently managing electricity markets where congestion on a single element can affect thousands of other elements and power transfers continues to be a significant challenge.

"The price spike of June 1998 in the Midwest is a prime example," Overbye said. "During this incident, which lasted for several days, spot market prices for electricity soared from typical values of about $25 per megawatt hour up to values of $7,500 per megawatt hour. Like food during a famine, as the electrical load went up, generation became an increasingly valuable commodity. This situation allowed the remaining suppliers of power to rapidly raise prices to unheard-of levels."

Information about the electrical grid is currently displayed as text on a computer screen or as complex schematic diagrams. To assist users with analyzing this vast amount of disjointed data, Overbye and his students have developed interactive, three-dimensional displays.

"The use of interactive 3-D displays can illustrate relationships between system characteristics that traditional visualization techniques can not convey," Overbye said. "This allows users to better comprehend the data and make better decisions. For example, if the price spike of '98 had been caught earlier, buyers could have obtained longer-term contracts from the remaining suppliers at far less cost."

Overbye described his advanced visualization tools at the IEEE Power Engineering Society winter meeting Jan. 23-27 in Singapore.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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