Overbye honored for power grid software development

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By ECE Staff Writer
February 12, 2005

  • ECE Professor Thomas Overbye has been awarded the first annual Alexander Schwarzkopf Prize for Technological Innovation from the I/UCRC Association, a voluntary, independent organization of past and present members of the National Science Foundation’s Industry/University Cooperative Research Center program.
  • The award recognizes Overbye’s creation, development and technological transfer of the power system visualization software known as PowerWorld Simulator.

Thomas J. Overbye
Thomas J. Overbye

ECE Professor Thomas Overbye has been awarded the first annual Alexander Schwarzkopf Prize for Technological Innovation from the I/UCRC Association, a voluntary, independent organization of past and present members of the National Science Foundation’s Industry/University Cooperative Research Center program.

The award recognizes Overbye’s creation, development and technological transfer of the power system visualization software known as PowerWorld Simulator. This tool visualizes the complex processes in which power flows in the nation’s electrical grid, allowing engineers to better understand the events associated with its operation and providing managers with a basis for managing and responding to its occasional breakdown.

Starting with raw engineering analysis tools and novel ideas for animation, Overbye created a program that presents critical technical information in a manner suitable for anyone interested in the performance of the interconnected electric power grid. The motivation for this program began in the early 1990s when the electric power industry was on the verge of a tremendous upheaval as electric utility systems were being opened to deregulation and competition.

According to Overbye, “The problem was not the lack of excellent power system analysis algorithms but instead one of communication—communicating the requirements imposed on the transmission grid by the fundamental laws of physics to an audience that viewed laws as something to be over-turned or amended in the next legislative session.”

Through the use of animation, the Simulator software allows economists, lawyers, policymakers, and planners to see exactly how proposed business decisions and regulatory rules interact with the technical/physical constraints of the power system imposed by the laws of physics. Simulator is also used to break new research ground in the area of power system visualization and analysis of restructuring issues. New techniques include the mapping of information for rapid identification of potential congestion problems and market power opportunities. These features are providing the critical link between complex technical phenomena and economic/regulatory concerns.

To accomplish these functions, Simulator produces a variety of color graphics to communicate complex engineering information about a power grid. For instance, it can create charts showing specific details of electric power flows within a network, including animated flow, critical loading levels and generation/load patterns. The software can also create contour maps of electrical grids covering large geographical areas, with shading differences indicating levels of electricity prices by region.

The basic software was commercialized in 1996 by the formation of PowerWorld Corporation. Simulator has been sold to more than 300 different corporate entities that collectively span the spectrum of the new electricity industry.

Overbye has been a leader in the concept development of a “Continental SuperGrid,” a massive system for delivering both electricity and hydrogen fuel to major cities across the United States. His work on the PowerWorld Simulator project was supported by the Power Systems Engineering Research Center, a multi-university member of the National Science Foundation’s Industry/University Cooperative Research Center program.

The Alexander Schwarzkopf Prize is awarded annually in the name of Dr. Alexander Schwarzkopf, who established the Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRC) Program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1979 and has managed this unique and remarkably effective program since its creation.

Two example color images demonstrating the visualization capabilities of PowerWorld Simulator are shown below.

About the I/UCRC Program – The I/UCRC Program traces its history back to the early 1970s; it is the longest continuously operating cooperative research center program sponsored by NSF. With a modest budget of $6 million/year, the program currently supports 45 centers involving over 80 universities, 600 member firms, 700 faculty and 850 students. NSF support is leveraged 15-to-1 by other public and private funding sources. Over the years, faculty supported by the I/UCRC program have won a long list of scholarly and professional awards and honors for their research. Remarkably most of the 110 centers formed over the past 30 years are still in existence. The I/UCRC Program continues to be recognized as a model for collaborative research and development between universities and industry, throughout the United States and around the world.”

Figure 1 shows a simulation of the flow of electric power on the high voltage transmission grid in Northern Ohio at about 15:33 EDT on August 14 th 2003, a time when emergency control may have been able to prevent the East Coast blackout.
Figure 1 shows a simulation of the flow of electric power on the high voltage transmission grid in Northern Ohio at about 15:33 EDT on August 14 th 2003, a time when emergency control may have been able to prevent the East Coast blackout.
Figure 2 shows a contour of the voltages in the electric power grid during the August 14 th blackout. The red areas in Northern Ohio are used to vividly show the low voltages in that area.
Figure 2 shows a contour of the voltages in the electric power grid during the August 14 th blackout. The red areas in Northern Ohio are used to vividly show the low voltages in that area.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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