Keeping the lights on when the grid takes a hit

Employees at the Los Alamos National Laboratory created software that can predict how massive damage from natural disasters like hurricanes, ice storms or earthquakes will affect power grids.

The Severe Contingency Solver for electric power transmission is free, open-source software that simulates the impact of disasters by taking into account voltage, line flow and generator capability limits and providing information of how the grid will be affected.  By determining the maximum amount of power that a damaged grid can supply, network operators can avoid widespread blackouts.

“The software was designed specifically to address extreme events where damage to the power grid and the resulting outages are significant,” Carleton Coffrin, a computer scientist at the lab and lead developer of the software, said in a statement. “It can tell users where the greatest outage is expected prior to an event. By offering it as open-source, so it’s free and available to the public, we’re hoping to help government agencies and grid operators mitigate the devastating effects of extended power outages.”

Previously, quantifying damage from events such as earthquakes and hurricanes required complicated calculations that simulated the grid’s physics and involved 100,000 variables and equations, according to the lab. The software uses new algorithms to make those calculations more reliable and independent of human help.

The software, which is already being used by federal agencies, runs on several operating systems, including Microsoft Windows, OS X and Linux, and is available on GitHub.

Lab officials see uses for the Severe Contingency Solver beyond the power grid. For instance, the team is working on similar technology for power distribution and gas networks that will help network operators and policymakers quantify how critical infrastructures will respond when extreme events take out multiple services at one time.

These insights can improve situational awareness that can help with response to these occurrences, such as getting assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or first responders from surrounding areas.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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