September 16, 2005

Cornell Receives Grant for Power Grid Research

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The National Science Foundation has powered Cornell and three other universities with a $7.5 million grant to design a more robust and reliable electricity distribution system.

The five-year award, announced by NSF on Aug. 14, funds research to fortify the nation’s power grid against cyber-attacks as well as accidental failures like the Northeast blackout of Aug. 2003.

Called Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid (TCIP), the project is a joint collaboration among Cornell, Dartmouth College, Washington State University and the University of Illinois, the research leader.

The four institutions work with a 14-member advisory board of power companies who have the ability to put their research findings in action. These companies include General Electric, Cisco Systems, Siemens, Honeywell, as well as the New York and California Independent System Operators (ISO), which coordinate the buying and selling of electricity for the two states.

Robert Thomas is the University’s director for TCIP and director of Cornell’s Power Systems Engineering Research Center (PSERC).

Cornell’s area of expertise is its ability to test experimental power markets, he said.

Using a computer-based electricity auction market called PowerWeb, Thomas and his team can manipulate market rules to study their effects on electricity prices.

In PowerWeb, humans acting as operators of power generating stations offer electricity at various prices to a central agent, the ISO. The ISO computes how much power each generator should produce and the corresponding price. It also compiles a schedule for power generation to ensure that at every moment, the supply of power equals the demand for power.

“It’s all about incentives,” Thomas said. He explained that under some market rules, operators have an incentive to charge a higher price than is reasonable; under other conditions, they have no incentive to produce power at all.

The goal of using PowerWeb is to find the “incentives to offer [power] at just and reasonable prices,” he said.

Ray Zimmerman, director of the Laboratory of Experimental economics decision research and a member of Thomas’s team, noted that Cornell is also using PowerWeb to examine security issues.

“We use PowerWeb to study what effects on the system you might see if people could break in and see information,” he said. “If they could manipulate market prices so one of their competitors lost money, they [would] make a lot more money.”

In a worst case scenario, the unscrupulous party could use this siphoned money to fund a terrorist organization, Zimmerman said.

The need for greater system security and fair competition comes at the heels of a restructuring in the power market, which began in the late 1990s.

Zimmerman explained that previously, companies owned both the generators that produced the power and the utilities that delivered the power to end-users. In this vertically integrated model, generators had little incentive to produce power at cheaper rates.

In today’s more deregulated market, generators are separate from utilities, meaning that generators must compete on price to sell their power.

Prof. Anna Scalagione, electrical and computer engineering, is another Cornell researcher involved in the TCIP project. Her focus is on communication systems and sensor networks for substations, which are nodes in the power transmission system that monitor and provide data on the state of the network.

“Power systems are vulnerable. There’s lots of ways to take the system down,” Thomas said. “[We’re] being prudent. [We] do not want to leave the door open.”

Along with the NSF, the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security have also pledged to fund and manage TCIP.

TCIP is part of the Cyber Trust program, a larger initiative by the NSF to create secure and reliable networks for all of the nation’s infrastructures.

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Senior Editor