Inside grid operators

The control room at the ISO New England is where power in the region is dispatched and the grid monitored for reliability. At this location, there are desks set up specifically for monitoring transmission, managing the flow of energy, and forecasting demand. This slideshow will show how bulk energy is managed on the wholesale grid.

To get a better feel for how the grid works, last week CNET's Martin LaMonica visited ISO New England in Holyoke, Mass., one of several grid operators, called independent system operators (ISOs) or regional transmission organizations (RTOs), that work behind the scenes to ensure delivery of electricity across the country.

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Photo by: ISO New England / Caption by:

Grid on a box

Grid operators work under this giant screen, made up of 27 individual plasma screens, which represents all the major power-generation units, transmission lines, and substations on the New England grid. The placement of places relative to each is approximate. But from an electrical point of view, this accurately represents the pathways for electricity to flow.

The small screen on the bottom with large yellow writing indicates how much power is being used. At the moment of this photo it was 20,183 megawatts. The highest ever this summer was 27,100 megawatts and the highest ever was 28,130 in August 2006.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

Power flows

The operators in the control room were kind enough to change the screen to show how much power is flowing and in what direction. Here we can see that, not surprisingly, the main power load on at this moment was in Boston. Other cities, such as Worcester and locations in Connecticut, are also net draws. Grid operations people need to coordinate with their counterparts in other regions. On the left, it indicates the flow of energy between New England and New York, for example.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

Wide area monitoring

One of the federal regulatory mandates to come out of the blackout of 2003 was more "wide-area monitoring," or keeping track of happenings at other regional transmission operators. Here is a map of the adjoining New York state grid on the left, which is managed by the New York ISO on the left. On the right is a colored map indicating voltage in the region, which needs to be monitored as a drop in voltage could cause breakdowns in energy flow.

In addition to monitoring the health of the grid, ISO New England holds auctions between power plant energy suppliers and utilities which deliver electricity to end customers. It also dispatches energy based on demand, maintains a steady frequency and voltage, and does short- and long-term forecasting. At the far right (above the screen with the person talking on a news show) is a screen that shows thunderstorm activity, something grid operators need to be aware of since it can cause equipment failures.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

Peering into the future of the grid

The job of grid operators, who already monitor huge amounts of data, stands to get more complicated as utilities add more renewable energy, storage, and "demand-side resources" onto the grid. Rather than add power to the grid to meet peak-time demand, regional grid operators are using demand response, where utility customers agree to cut down electricity use when the grid is maxed out.

ISO New England is also involved in a smart-grid project where it will use high-speed sensors to gather huge amounts of data from substations on grid conditions, such as current and voltage. This will give people monitoring the grid more awareness of how things are changing to make power delivery more reliable. As more wind and solar are added to the grid, this information will also allow operators to better handle the variable nature of wind and solar, according to ISO New England executives.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

Server intensive

ISO New England's mission relies heavily on an IT infrastructure which provides information to control room operators and connects to power generators and other regional grid operators over a private frame-relay network. The data center is made up of hundreds of servers in two rooms, with the second room an exact replica of the first and an off-site disaster recovery site. IT professionals at the data center network operations center coordinate with people in the grid control room to spot and fix problems, such as connections between ISO New England and other locations.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:
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