Engineering Departments

Virginia Tech engineers Thorp and Phadke lead nation’s efforts to protect power grid


Jim Thorp, right, and Arun Phadke, left, Virginia Tech Professors of Electrical and Computer Engineering Emeriti, are strongly involved in projects which amount to more than 50 percent of the available U.S. Department of Energy stimulus awards to modernize the electric grid system and to improve the security and reliability of the energy infrastructure.
Blacksburg, VA , September 07, 2009
Virginia Tech College of Engineering

Two of the nation’s icons in the electric power field are Arun Phadke and James Thorp, recipients of the 2008 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering for their combined contributions of more than 60 years to this industry. Today, they are strongly involved in projects which amount to more than 50 percent of the available U.S. Department of Energy stimulus awards to modernize the electric grid system and to improve the security and reliability of the energy infrastructure.

Phadke and Thorp, both members of the National Academy of Engineering and Virginia Tech Professors Emeriti of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), will each serve as the Virginia Tech principal investigator (PI) on two unique projects, as well as assist each other. Some 300 submissions were made to the DOE to modernize the power grid, and only four were funded, with Virginia Tech receiving two of the four. The two projects total $ 2.6 million. Phadke is the PI and Thorp is the Co-PI of a project with funding of $1.5 million, while Thorp leads the Virginia Tech team as a subcontractor for the $1.1 million project.

Collaborators for decades, Thorp and Phadke have developed a number of advances that strengthen the electric utility industry’s ability to prevent power grid blackouts, or to make them less intense and easier to recover from. Their numerous achievements throughout their careers culminated with the Franklin Medal, presented to very select individuals whose great innovations have benefited humanity, advanced science, launched new fields of inquiry, and deepened the understanding of the universe. For the past 183 years, the Franklin Institute has presented its honors, making these recognitions among the oldest and most prestigious comprehensive science awards in the world.

According to the DOE, Phadke and Thorp’s newly funded work will now advance technologies that rely on the exchange of synchrophasor data among electric utility companies and other electricity entities.

The DOE explained that synchrophasors are high-speed, real-time synchronized measurement devices used to diagnose the health of the electricity grid. With synchrophasor data, electric utilities can use existing power more efficiently and push more power through the grid while reducing the likelihood of power disruptions like blackouts. Like an up-to-the-minute weather map for the nation's electricity grid, synchrophasor information enhances the ability to predict possible disruptions in time to remedy them.

This new research will build upon a recently completed three-year project funded by the California Energy Commission through the Public Interest Energy. Its findings indicated the use of wide area synchrophasor measurements in electrical power systems can be of significant value to power companies. These measurements can reduce the likelihood of false trips by protection systems and lessen the likelihood of contributing to a cascading effect.

“Recent blackouts on power systems have shown how critical a reliable power system is to modern societies. Blackouts can cause enormous economic and societal damage,” Thorp said. “The cascading phenomena can lead to additional blackouts. With a rough estimate that over five million electrical relaying systems exist on the North American power grid, it is to be expected that some of these unanticipated failures are due to defective relays.”

Thorp’s team will develop and demonstrate tools using synchrophasor measurements to reduce the likelihood of false and inappropriate triggers of transmission system circuit breakers that protectively shut down electrical flow and contribute to cascading blackouts.

Members of the team include colleagues from Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Oakland, Ca., Southern California Edison, Rosemead, Ca., San Diego Gas and Electric Co., San Diego, Ca., Mississippi State University, the California Energy Commission, Sacramento, Ca., and Quanta Technology, Raleigh, N.C.

Phadke’s team will develop analytic tools and calibration techniques for measurement devices to implement an innovative synchrophasor-based tracking system to monitor the state of the electric grid. The techniques will better diagnose the sources of network unbalances and identify actions needed to remedy them.

His project team includes researchers from Dominion Virginia Power, Richmond, Va., and Quanta Technology, Raleigh, N.C.

Virgilio Centeno ,associate professor of ECE at Virginia Tech will also work on both projects.


Lynn Nystrom
(540) 231-4371