Yilu Liu, a woman in an off-white suit, stands in front of the live power grid data visualization

Ensuring a Stable Power Grid

Professor Yilu Liu’s research identifies power system failures before they happen.

Yilu Liu, the UT–Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Power Electronics, serves as deputy director of CURENT, the Center for Ultra-Wide-Area-Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks.

Housed in UT’s Tickle College of Engineering, CURENT is funded by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy, and devoted to making the nation’s power grid more secure, reliable, and efficient.

Yilu Liu gestures toward the power grid data visualization screen

A look inside the power grid operation visualization room in the Min H. Kao Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Building bears out the level of innovation Yilu Liu and her CURENT team have undertaken.

When many people think of a widespread power failure, they imagine a massive storm. In reality, the threat to our modern interconnected power system can come from just about anywhere. Power-related engineering has to take into account problems from weather, overuse, animals, and human action—accidental or otherwise.

“The power grid failing can be due to any number of reasons,” said Liu. “In CURENT, we aim to address the problem from a wide-area point of view and try to find ways to intercept the problem before it reaches the point of no return.”

Liu has played a critical role in developing technology that helps the center achieve those goals. Perhaps no breakthroughs have been more important than a pair of ideas known as FNET/GridEye.

Along with other researchers at ORNL and UT, Liu developed the FNET/GridEye system to help monitor the power grid in real time. It detects power grid events and their locations through GPS time synchronization technology, taking measurements at more than 1,400 times per second. Those computations enable future power operators to make split-second decisions about failures, increased loads, and other problems.

A moving image showing the result of a lost power plant from the grid in Florida, moving across a map of the United States in blues, reds, yellows, greens

FNET/GridEye event playback of the loss of a power plant in Florida.

Liu has been involved with a number of other patented ideas that have helped shape CURENT into a cutting-edge laboratory.

“We use state-of-the-art technology to make it as real as possible,” said Liu. “We want our students and our research to be as applicable as can be.”

The control room features a cinema-size screen with a computerized look at a power grid, complete with control stations representing different operator locations across the grid.

The setup allows faculty and students to run simulated problems on the grid, developing responses to problems before they occur in the real world.

In recognition of her accomplishments, Liu was elected in 2016 as a member of the National Academy of Engineers “For innovations in electric power grid monitoring, situational awareness, and dynamic modelling.”

Talking about recent events in Texas, Liu has a lot of respect to the engineer heroes who kept the ERCOT grids from total collapse during the recent extreme weather. FNET has close to one dozen monitors in Texas. “During the storm, we watched them go down one by one,” she says. “With more than 1,700 generators dropped out of the grid, it is amazing the system still continue to run. The situation could have been a lot worse if the grid failed completely.”

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