The power of prescience: Predicting and preventing blackouts on the US power grid

Based on analysis of blackouts from over the last 50 years, start-up Prescient Transmission Systems has developed a predictive methodology designed to ensure the US power grid doesn’t go down. Ross Davies spoke to CEO and founder Jerry Wolfe to find out how it works.


The US suffers more blackouts than any other country in the developed world. According to 2014 statistics collated by the Department of Energy (DoE) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation – the group charged with overseeing and regulating the reliability of the US grid – power is lost roughly 285% more often than in 1984, when such data first started being collected.

Power outages lasting more than an hour are on the rise and cost American businesses around $150m a year, says the DoE. At the same time, demand for electricity has spiked by over 10% during the last decade, as consumers have become increasingly dependent on digital devices.

Hotter summers have also contributed to increased demand for air conditioning, especially in the southern states.

Make no mistake about it, the US power grid is under unprecedented pressure. There have been calls from certain quarters for investment to be pumped into the ageing machine, which was built after the Second World War, sooner rather than later in a bid to modernise infrastructure and drive down outages.

“Everybody wants low-cost power”: Why rebuilding the grid is non-viable

However, a complete overhaul of the grid – which comprises of 7,000 plants over a total distance of more than five million miles – would be a herculean task, and doubtless cost a king’s ransom. Instead, ramping up reliability of current systems is the more desired route.

“Everyone wants low-cost power,” explains Jerry Wolfe, CEO of Prescient Transmission Systems. “Rebuilding distribution systems to significantly reduce customer outages would more than double the cost of electric power.  The preferred approach is to enhance reliability when it can be justified on a least cost basis.”

"A complete overhaul of the grid – which comprises of 7,000 plants over a total distance of more than five million miles – would be a herculean task, and doubtless cost a king’s ransom."

This is no small feat. As mentioned, the grid is prone to a number of disruptions, particularly in remote rural areas. Terrorism and cyber hacking are also cited as potential breaches that could create a wide-area blackout.

That hasn’t stopped Oregon-based start-up, Prescient, from developing a predictive methodology, which it believes could be used to consign current errors at the hands of electric utilities to the past.

“The overarching concern is that electric utilities are complacent,” says Wolfe, adding, “Their complacency is based on the fact that their systems are ultra-reliable as evidenced by the fact that power grids withstand many challenges every year. Unfortunately, past success does not assure future success.”

Back to the future: Predictive methodology based on 50 years of analysis

Wolfe – who has more than 45 years’ experience in the electric power industry – set up Prescient last year with co-founder and director of engineering, Tony Sleva. The focus is on predicting and preventing wide-area blackouts.

“Since we are a progressive company, we have the latitude to investigate past wide area blackouts, determine root cause, postulate alternative scenarios, and design new components for use in existing transmission systems,” explains Wolfe.

The proprietary methodology – based on in-depth analysis of blackouts in the US over the last 50 years – ranks environmental, design, construction, test, operations, maintenance, load and system factors that are crucial to triggering events that can result in a wide-area blackout.

“The approach is to use a holistic methodology that includes critical factors,” explains Wolfe. “It does not utilise real-time data, as the number of data points that are available during a triggering event are overwhelming.”

"We have the latitude to investigate past wide area blackouts, determine root cause, postulate alternative scenarios, and design new components for use in existing transmission systems."

After an initial assessment, Prescient adjusts appropriate factors and repeats the evaluation so as to determine any changes in the possibility of a wide-area blackout after recommended alterations are implemented.

The system then liaises closely with clients to select preferred alternatives and develop scheduling, cost documentation needed to justify required changes, modifications and enhancements.

While it’s still early days, Wolfe says clients have been receptive. “As entities in the electric power industry become aware of the depth of knowledge of Prescient Transmission Systems’ staff, demand for our services is increasing,” he says. “Currently, we are a start-up company with the capacity to accept additional clients.”

The renewables question: Creating a greener America or jeopardising the grid?

Prescient has also factored into its solutions the steady introduction of renewable energy into grid operations over the last decade. According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2016 roughly two-thirds of new power sources on the grid derived from renewable sources.

“Renewable energy is being integrated into the power grid and new requirements are being promulgated as issues arise,” says Wolfe.

“In the 1990s, electric utilities believed that few renewable energy sources would be connected to the power grid and protective relaying schemes were designed to rapidly isolate renewable energy sources whenever voltage perturbations occurred. 

“Today, renewable energy sources are required to incorporate ‘fault ride through’ [the ability of electric generators to stay connected in short periods of lower electric network voltage] features.”

But the introduction of renewables has not been welcomed by everyone, such as US President Trump. The new president is widely expected to drastically reshape the policies and regulations of the Obama Administration, which favoured green energy.

Such measures would be welcomed by those who believe renewables are responsible for the grid’s declining reliability. Wolfe, however, dismisses such claims.

“Prescient does not see a significant change in reliability when a greater proportion of electrical power is supplied by renewable energy,” he says.

“The reliability of the electric grid is being compromised by a wide variety of challenges. Renewable generation is just one more challenge.”

At present, Wolfe says, the probability of a wide area blackout is one outage per 100 triggering events – known as B2 Reliability.  Prescient’s mission, for this year at least, is to reduce that probability to one blackout per 100,000 events – B5 Reliability.

It’s an ambitious target. But for the hundreds of thousands of Americans unduly affected by blackouts each year, it could bring about the kind of reliability they so crave when they go to switch on the lights.