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When Power Lines Break, a New Control System Keeps the Sparks From Flying

San Diego is rolling out synchrophasor tech for real‑time grid control

3 min read
Photo: Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/AP
Slow Burn: A 2017 wildfire near power lines in Montecito, Calif., burned for almost six months before firefighters subdued it.
Photo: Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/AP

Amidst what could be California’s worst wildfire season on record, San Diego Gas & Electric is counting on technology to reduce dangerous sparking from its power lines. This month, the utility completed the initial rollout of a home-grown automated control technology that taps ultrafast synchrophasor sensors to detect and turn off broken power lines before they hit the ground.

Projects such as this mark a turning point for grid control. Synchrophasor sensors send out time-stamped measurements of power and its phase—the angular position of the alternating current and voltage waves—up to 60 times per second. That is at least 120 times as fast as most utilities’ industrial control systems. And the GPS-synchronized time stamps allow data assembled from multiple sensors to create a precise wide-area view of power grids.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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