Solid-state design improves on existing fault current limiters
A local power failure in Ohio ten years ago caused a series of cascading power failures that resulted in a massive blackout that affected 50 million people and caused billions of dollars in damage and lost revenue.
Such blackouts could be prevented in the future, thanks to a new piece of equipment developed by engineering researchers at the University of Arkansas. The device regulates or limits the amount of excess current that moves through the power grid when a surge occurs.
“We didn’t invent the fault current limiter,” said Alan Mantooth, Distinguished Professor and executive director of the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission, based at the university. “But we have developed the first one using a silicon-carbide semiconductor device and technology, which we have developed over the past five years. The significance of this material cannot be overestimated. It is much more durable and responds so much faster than materials currently used in systems on the U.S. power grid.”
A fault current, also known as a surge, occurs when too much current flows through the electrical power grid in an uncontrolled manner. A fault current is typically caused by an accident or unintended event, such as lightning or contact between power lines and trees. These events cause short-circuits, which result in a rapid increase in the electricity drawn from power sources within the grid.
When these sources do not have extra power to give, cascading or rolling blackouts can occur. This is what happened in Ohio, much of the northeast United States and parts of Canada in 2003.
A fault current limiter can be thought of as a giant surge protector. When excess current travels through a power line, the limiter absorbs it and then sends only what is necessary farther down the line, Mantooth said. The system thus ensures uninterrupted service when the fault is intermittent. Most consumers would not even detect a problem. Furthermore, if the fault is more permanent and will require repair to power lines, Mantooth said, the device then opens much like a normal circuit breaker, which would thus prevent further damage due to excess current.
Proper coordination and device placement will prevent cascading outages, he said.
“This device really can mean the difference between 25,000 customers or 5 million customers being affected,” Mantooth said.
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