Tackling The Energy Crisis

Software optimizes flow of electricity through the power grid.

Is California's energy crisis just a thinly disguised supply-chain optimization problem -- the type of challenge that software so deftly handles in the manufacturing world? Entrepreneur Roland Schoettle thinks so, and his Calgary, Alta., Canada, Optimal Technologies International Inc. has developed optimization software called Aempfast to address the power crisis. Using proprietary algorithms, Aempfast can analyze, optimize, and identify constraints in the flow of electricity through the power grid. Schoettle says Aempfast is designed to manage the limitations of a grid's resources. "These include generating stations that contribute to the problem rather than solving it. Contrary to popular opinion, simply adding generating sites to a grid may not alleviate an energy shortage." Schoettle's analogy: "Pushing more cars onto a highway doesn't necessarily mean more throughput. Often it can have the opposite effect." Schoettle's solution is not the first attempt to tackle grid optimization. "Over the decades, so many previous efforts proved unsuccessful that conventional thinking has it that devising software to enhance grid performance is an unsolvable challenge," says Schoettle. To counter that view Schoettle has been demonstrating his software to California power authorities. Some, like Winston Hickox, agency secretary of the California State Environmental Protection Agency, have responded favorably. (He told the San Francisco Chronicle: "What I think Optimal has . . . is an algorithm that people have attempted to develop for 50 years.") Barbara Barkovich, energy and utility regulatory consultant, Barkovich & Yap, Oakland, Calif., points to the ability of Schoettle's software "to optimize the system on the basis of frequent updates -- which current systems can't do. Instead of running a day-long traditional power-flow-optimization model, Aempfast has the ability to look at all the contributions made by each element of the grid on a real-time basis." Last month Optimal's Benicia, Calif., organization entered into a contract with California to provide further proof of what its proprietary algorithm can do. The contract will test the software's analysis of power-grid data from the first unscheduled blackout that occurred on June 14, 2000, as a result of undervoltage at a substation. Test results, due soon, will determine if Aempfast would have prevented the problem. The next step, he says, is a long-term contract with a goal to work with the state to eliminate rolling blackouts entirely by 2002. Schoettle warns that California has no monopoly on the power crisis. "New York and 10 other states are not far behind. The more we interconnect grids the more unstable electrical power becomes. "The information age is built on networks and what people don't understand is that the most important network is not the Internet, but the power network," Schoettle adds. "Physical networks will always be in trouble -- even if we overbuild generation, even if we have too much supply -- because the supply will be inefficient and costly."

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