Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Electric Power Reliability, ISOs, and an Upcoming UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter Tour

As the Faculty Advisor to the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter, I am always on the lookout for activities and speakers that our chapter members would enjoy.

Several years back, we had a wonderful tour of ISO-NE, the Independent Systems Operator for New England, which is based in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

With so much happening in the smart grid arena, it was time to schedule another tour and visit there, especially since we have a new cohort of students.

The chapter will be going on a tour there and will get to see the control room (it truly is a spectacular sight with high-tech screens, networks, and power flows) on November 4.

And, we like to say that we are always VERY current -- in today's New York Times, there is a special section on Energy, and one of the articles,"On the Front Lines of the Power Grid," is written by a fellow Brown University alum, Matt Wald (whose wife lived down the hall from me freshman year in the Pembroke dorm).

The article notes that there are 100 Independent System Operators (ISOs) in the US that ensure electric power reliability. It also emphasizes the importance of training, education, and skill, and one of my former undergraduate students, who took my transportation & logistics class, is now an employee at the ISO-NE (He was also the President of the UMass bicycling club).

Interestingly, the article also notes the following:

Recruiting is a challenge, though. Grid entities look for candidates with some background in engineering, but they also need certain personality traits, like the ability to work collaboratively but not to debate endlessly. People with military backgrounds are favored, because they often have appropriate organizational and technical skills.

One aspect that makes the job complicated is that on the grid these days, there is a market not just for electricity, but also for “ancillary services.” These include the ability to ramp up and down quickly, which will be required as the wind and sun vary in intensity; the ability to add or subtract very large amounts of power in tiny fractions of a second, to keep the alternating current system working as closely as possible to 60 alternations per second; the ability to step in to control voltage; the ability to stand by for hours or days at a time, poised to start up if something goes wrong; and the ability, if everything goes wrong, to begin generating with no outside power to help.

I tell my students in operations that this is a great area to be employed in!

In addition, it is a terrific subject for research and I have had several of my doctoral students do research on electric power network modelling with our most recent paper using data from ISO-NE. It was published in the Naval Research Logistics Quarterly.

I highlighted our findings in my recent keynote talk on Sustainability: Methodology and Applications at SAMSI in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the theme of the workshop was uncertainty quantification and energy.

You can follow our chapter's activities on Facebook.