Lightning-smart lab shows grid of the future

Walk into this Smart Grid laboratory, and you’ll enter into an indoor forest of sturdy utility poles, all mounted with the standard gray equipment you might see on power lines running through your neighborhood.

The half-size poles offer a squirrel’s-eye view of the vaunted Smart Grid, as the gear might look to a person lifted by a bucket truck. You can hear birds twittering and crickets chirping as thunder rumbles in the distance – special effects to set the mood.

As violent storms mark the arrival of spring in much of the country, ABB, the Swiss energy conglomerate, on Monday showcased advanced, smart-grid technologies that officials said will allow for speedier power restoration for storm victims.

ABB’s $10 million Smart Grid Center of Excellence at N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus is wired with real electricity for testing equipment and for product demonstrations to potential customers.

“It’s an impressive facility, with all that equipment,” said James McLawhorn, chief of the electric division of the Public Staff, the state’s consumer protection agency. “This is a pretty sophisticated setup.”

ABB, which makes transformers and substations for the electric power industry, is one several dozen companies in the area working on some aspect of the Smart Grid, which is sometimes described as an energy Internet. An apt comparison might be the quantum leap technologically from a dial-up rotary phone to the iPhone.

Helping fuel the Smart Grid activity in North Carolina are universities, high-tech companies and more than $600 million in federal stimulus funds for Smart Grid research, more than any other state in the country.

The futuristic power grid in ABB’s lab is so new that fewer than a half-dozen utilities worldwide have implemented it, though many more have bought pieces of this system as add-ons to their aging mechanical power grid.

Utilities generally will not replace costly equipment until gear depreciates, so it could take a generation before the hardware and software in ABB’s lab is standard in this country, said Brad Luyster, vice president of ABB’s Smart Grid Distribution Automation.

The two basic benefits of the Smart Grid for power companies, and their customers, will be increased reliability and improved efficiency. The grid in some cases will be able to pinpoint outages for work crews; in others, it could automatically trigger “self-healing” responses to keep the juice flowing around toppled tree trunks.

At the street level, customers will someday enjoy such benefits as programming their thermostats remotely from a computer or iPad to reduce waste when they’re not home, or when they just don’t want to get out of bed to turn down the air conditioner.

ABB has 1,600 employees in the state, including 375 in Raleigh, 275 in Cary and about 100 just north of Charlotte where the company plans to open a high-voltage transmission cable manufacturing facility.

As public officials and guests toured the facility, technicians sitting at computer terminals remotely opened and closed circuit breakers mounted on the poles, emitting loud popping sounds. The lab also includes a 40,000-watt lightning simulator that flashes to the thunder simulator.

The nine utility poles, within 23 feet of each other, represent about 23 miles of power lines in a real-life scenario.

On ABB’s monitor, which shows a digital ganglion of lines and feeders, the section represented by the lab would amount to a dot on the screen. Operators can digitally reroute electricity using a keypad while pinpointing the grid sections where electricity has been disrupted. “You’ll start seeing this in the next five to 10 years,” Luyster said.

Written by John Muraswski, The Raleigh News & Observer