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Visualizing the Electric Grid

In the new world of competition, power traders, grid managers, public service boards, and the public itself all need to take in what's happening at a glance

13 min read

Visualization software packs a large amount of information into a single computer-generated image, enabling viewers to interpret the data more rapidly and more accurately than ever before. This kind of software will become still more useful, even indispensable, as electricity grids are integrated over ever-larger areas, as transmission and generation become competitive markets, and as transactions grow in number and complexity.

Tracking and managing these burgeoning transaction flows puts operating authorities on their mettle. While the electric power system was designed as the ultimate in plug-and-play convenience, the humble wall outlet has become a gateway to one of the largest and most complex of man-made objects. For example, barring a few islands and other small isolated systems, the grid in most of North America is just one big electric circuit. It encompasses billions of components, tens of millions of kilometers of transmission line, and thousands of generators with power outputs ranging from less than 100 kW to 1000 MW and beyond. Grids on other continents are similarly interconnected.

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Caltech Team Launches Experimental Space-Based Solar Array

The satellite will test some of the tech needed to wirelessly beam power from orbit

4 min read
A lightweight gold-colored square frame for a solar power array, seen flying in space with Earth in background.

Artist's conception of Caltech's Space Solar Power Demonstrator in Earth orbit.

Caltech

For about as long as engineers have talked about beaming solar power to Earth from space, they’ve had to caution that it was an idea unlikely to become real anytime soon. Elaborate designs for orbiting solar farms have circulated for decades—but since photovoltaic cells were inefficient, any arrays would need to be the size of cities. The plans got no closer to space than the upper shelves of libraries.

That’s beginning to change. Right now, in a sun-synchronous orbit about 525 kilometers overhead, there is a small experimental satellite called the Space Solar Power Demonstrator One (SSPD-1 for short). It was designed and built by a team at the California Institute of Technology, funded by donations from the California real estate developer Donald Bren, and launched on 3 January—among 113 other small payloads—on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

“To the best of our knowledge, this would be the first demonstration of actual power transfer in space, of wireless power transfer,” says Ali Hajimiri, a professor of electrical engineering at Caltech and a codirector of the program behind SSPD-1, the Space Solar Power Project.

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Forecasting the Ice Loss of Greenland’s Glaciers With Viscoelastic Modeling

Researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany are developing new models to simulate how glaciers behave

8 min read
Aerial view of Nioghalvfjerdsbræ showing the extensive patterns of the crevasses

This sponsored article is brought to you by COMSOL.

To someone standing near a glacier, it may seem as stable and permanent as anything on Earth can be. However, Earth’s great ice sheets are always moving and evolving. In recent decades, this ceaseless motion has accelerated. In fact, ice in polar regions is proving to be not just mobile, but alarmingly mortal.

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