WASHINGTON, Jan. 17, 2016 - Satellite communications make it possible to gather massive amounts of data from systems of vast scale, but the way that all that information is presented to electric control center operators makes it hard for them to get an accurate understanding of the data so they can make effective decisions. The goal of a new Energy Department grant is to find easier ways for electric control center operators to process critical situations. The $687,760 grant will be shared between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) School of Mathematical Sciences.

“Most of the time, the electric grid works very well, untouched by human hands,” says Esa Rantanen, an associate professor of psychology at RIT and the grant’s principal investigator. “Except when something goes wrong. And that’s why the operators are there.”

The Northeast blackout in 2003 that left more than 45 million people in the dark for up to two days was ultimately blamed on an event that began in Ohio. Controllers there were slow to respond to a disruption, causing a chain reaction failure that spread through eight states and Canada.

Electric transmission system operators look after high voltage lines to see how electricity is flowing over long distances. Distribution operators monitor electricity flowing into homes and businesses. “There’s always maintenance work going on, and the operators can get a call a minute,” says Rantanen. Add severe weather and varying demands for energy consumption, and the variables operators must manage grow.

“Technologies are galloping far ahead of the human operators. The grid is becoming more and more instrumented. It can handle a huge amount of data. But the problem is, you still have human operators who must sort it all out and use that information for their decisions. Normally, the operators try to stay a step ahead of the system, always preparing contingencies.”

Rantanen says his research next spring will have operators looking at mock displays, showing various scenarios. “The operators will try to solve the problems we throw at them. …We want to find new ways of providing the information, so it will be easier for them to spot a problem and solve it.”


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