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Taming the power of power

Two researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory say they feel like they are attempting the impossible.

Joe Oliveira, Janet Jones-Oliveira and a team of engineering experts are taking the first steps toward developing a computer model of the way our country's electrical generating and transmission, distribution and end-user systems operate. This is a daunting challenge because the systems have changed radically in recent years.

"There are more variables in the power generation and transmission systems than ever before. And there are more variables in the economics of power generation and transmission than ever before," Oliveira said. "This is the first time that we know of that anyone has tried to couple these two highly variable systems in order to show how changes in either or both systems will impact each other. We're also going to create a model that changes and evolves on its own just like the real economy to understand the likely outcomes of introducing policies and technologies, and ultimately, the impact on consumers."

Until recently, companies or public utilities generated or purchased power, distributed that power through their own transmission systems and sold it to their customers at a price that recovered costs and allowed for a profit, or an operating reserve, depending on whether it was a private or public utility. There were usually price breaks based on the amount of power being used, but overall, the system was simple and worked well.

Today, however, driven mostly by rising prices, power distributors don't always own the generating stations. Whether public or private, they are buying their power from a variety of sources at different rates. Utilities are able to sell power for blocks of time ranging from a year down to periods as short as ten minutes. The more urgent the need for power, the higher the price on the short-term market.

Jones-Oliveira explained that solar and wind power are beginning to play more important roles in supplying the nation's energy needs, which disrupts the model for a centralized power generation and distribution. "We need to account for these resources in terms of the amount of electricity generated, its availability and, of course, its price," she said.

Another factor that must be considered in developing a computer model is the growth or contraction of economies in individual areas within a larger distribution region. One area may be adding homes and small businesses while a factory may close in another. There also is another growing concern that is new to the equation the long-term and short-term impacts of climate change.

"It's like a very complex game where the rules are always changing," Oliveira said. "We need tools to help us assess the impact of these changes, to make the best use of them and certainly before they create crises. We must be able to accurately reflect the cause-and-effect relationships between all of these factors simultaneously."

The computer model will be most useful to companies that buy and sell electricity, to those needing to evaluate the potential for new technologies and to policy makers who want to encourage fairness in a free market. It also may help anyone from large farming operations to individual families that have their own generation sources or are interested in trading between electricity and other sources of energy when prices are more favorable. "Right now, power companies hold all the cards because they hold all the power. The program we are trying to develop will be a tool that the entire nation can use to ask questions, get answers and make decisions," Jones-Oliveira said.

This is not the first time the husband and wife team has worked on a project together, but they say it is certainly their most difficult. Fortunately, the duo has experience in developing complex computer models that respond to multiple variables and uncertainties, where one can drive another. "It will take us a year to create the first model. We see a clear path forward but we don't know what obstacles we may encounter. It's a very sobering challenge," Oliveira said.


Special thanks to Mike Berriochoa, contributing writer.


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