Modeling the Grid — Breakthrough

To start the new year off with a bang, I may be going out on a limb here, but I don’t think so. I hope you’ll take a close look at this….

DOE, EPRI and the entire power industry is abuzz with talk about how the grid can be operated better. The grand vision comes up hard against the incredibly difficult problem of modeling. For many decades, the best mathematicians, operations researchers, utility engineers and others have struggled to come up with (computerized) representations of the grid that can guide planners and operators.

Since the beginning, despite ever faster-cheaper computers, and tremendous innovations in algorithms and computational methods, the state of the art has been forced to make many bad compromises among such factors as speed, accuracy, detail, breadth, time domain, treatment of boundary effects, and applications. Unless corners are cut, a solution might not be found at all (i.e. converge). Areas of study and tools are stove-piped into many separate categories of time-scale and function:

– Real time (sec. to minutes)
optimal power flow, voltage and frequency control, contingency analysis

– Short term (hours to a week)
unit commitment, thermal-hydro coordination

– Annual ( 1-3 years)
maintenance scheduling, rate-design, production costing, hydro scheduling…

– Long term (3-40 years)
generations expansion, transmission planning, etc.

(see "A Primer on Electric Power Flow for Economists and Utility Planners" EPRI TR-104604, Feb 1995.)

To make things worse, the industry is highly fragmented and way behind the curve. Utilities don’t have the same cadre of experts in-house that they used to. Vendors sell "black-box" solutions that don’t live up to promises. Obsolete tools continue to be used because "everybody else uses them" and "regulators accept them". (Never mind the results may be worthless.) A guru of power flow analysis, now retired, told me that much of the industry isn’t even using more powerful real time analysis tools that are over 25 years old.

So there are major institutional problems and technical ones, and the two are intertwined. Not only is the problem fiendishly hard, but lot of people also have vested interests in the status quo (e.g., experts have devoted entire careers, and don’t look kindly at upstart claims of a breakthrough–just as in every field of human endeavor).


This is a long prologue to a story of just such a claimed breakthrough. Optimal Technologies appeared on the scene late in 2001, announcing they had analyzed the June 14, 2000 California blackout, and stating they could have prevented it by fine-tuning the grid according to results from their analysis tool, AEMPFAST.

Needless to say, the world was not especially open to the idea that a newcomer had succeeded in coming up with a methodology that did what so many had sought for so long:

"AEMPFAST is based on a new near-real-time (solves a several thousand bus system in milliseconds) mathematical approach to network analysis, optimization, ranking, and prediction called QuixFlow … a proprietary N-Dimensional (non-linear) analysis, optimization, and ranking engine that also has defendable predictive capabilities and is applicable to any problem that can be modeled as a network. … QuixFlow uses no approximations; it handles multiple objectives; and is able to enforce multi-objective inequality constraints." [from factsheet – see link below]

I have been closely following the company’s progress since then. Their revolutionary claims are finally beginning to overcome the natural skepticism and resistance. At least one major ISO/RTO is signing up, and DOE and a number of large utilities are taking it very seriously. The implications are, as Donald Trump would say, "huge".
Here is an introduction in the company’s own words:

Optimal Technologies is a private company focused on making power-grid systems more efficient, more reliable, and more cost effective to plan and operate. In other words, "smarter". Think of Optimal as the Internet for power grids [or Sonet for telecommunications] self-healing, self-enabling, lowest cost operation with highest reliability.

Problem: Power system infrastructures and the grid networks that support them are breaking down faster than solutions can be developed to address the underlying problems.

Because of inadequate core technologies and especially slow and limited mathematical tools, the utility industry is plagued with many tools based on algorithms that no longer work well for their intended tasks and that do not work well together. Last year’s blackout that effected more than 50 million people should help provide some context. Despite new advances in materials and hardware, blackouts and brownouts are becoming larger and more common because utility system planning and control methods are still in the horse and buggy era — done much as they were 50 years ago — fragmented and piecemealed. In other words, even though system peripherals (such as wind energy, distributed gas generation, fuel cell generators, meters, and demand-side management) are improving, the core grid Operating System that makes them all work well together doesn’t exist.

New Technology: Our software and hardware solutions are based on a revolutionary new mathematical approach to network analysis, optimization, and management. Our technology is far better than current approaches to understanding and managing networks, and allows for both local and integrated, end-to-end views of Generation, Transmission, Distribution and Load. Unlike competing products, our technology can view the complete energy delivery supply chain as an integrated asset, which allows for entirely new levels of risk review and risk management — previously not possible. Optimal’s new technology should be viewed as "Foundational" in that it has pervasive application within the power industry and provides a common framework for many new tools.

Optimal’s Solution: Think of us as the much needed underlying "operating system engine" that integrates, defragments, and prioritizes utility planning, operations, and business processes in the best controllable and defendable way. Our technologies have the ability to simultaneously analyze, optimize, and manage generation, transmission, distribution and customer load Ð down to the individual power line and building. Instead of viewing customer load as a problem, our technology has the ability to make all aspects of the system, including customer load, potential risk-reducing resources [i.e. reliability enhancers] not otherwise possible.

Products: Applications include: Congestion Management, Locational Marginal Pricing, Simultaneous Transfer Limits, Multi-Dimensional Reliability, Automated Network Planning, Emergency Control, System Restoration, and Smart Asset Management.

Beyond the scope of this note, Optimal also has a suite of software and hardware for the demand side, which enables measurement and control — and optimization — down to individual loads.
There is a great deal of information on the company’s website:

Roland Schoettle, CEO
Optimal Technologies International Inc. 707 557-1788

AEMPFAST FACTSHEET (good starting point)

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