NASPI: Building the Foundation for New Opportunities for Embedded


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There has long been a story (which, alas, turns out to be a myth) that in 1899 the head of the U.S. Patent Office sent his resignation to President McKinley because “everything that could be invented has been invented.” We in the optimistic age of innovation chuckle at that notion, which even though it never happened, makes for a good story and reminds us that we still have enormous problems and challenges to solve for which all of our inventive powers will be required.

It is true that today there is a vast number of embedded applications for which Gigahertz multicore processors are simply overkill. But these devices were not designed and produced for mere amusement. They have applications screaming for their capabilities. There is another, probably equally apocryphal, story that a young software developer was admonished to build his code with enough features and functionality to bog down his current development platform, because by the time he got the code developed and debugged, processor performance would be on hand that could easily run it. Of the two stories, the latter seems more believable.

Recently, as we have all been aware, the issues of energy have been much in the news as have issues of industrial safety. Creating solutions in both these areas opens huge opportunities for high-end computing power. One intriguing area is the underlying infrastructure for the Smart Grid. When we mention the Smart Grid, what usually first comes to mind are smart meters and smart appliances that can connect when rates are optimal, and smart monitoring of power usage in the home. But a much more fundamental structure must be added to the national power grid to make it more reliable, less susceptible to wide area blackouts, and better able to accommodate less centralized sources of generation like wind, solar and geothermal. This is known as the North American SynchroPhasor Initiative (NASPI).

NASPI envisions a grid-wide network system that will take input from devices called phasor measurement units (PMUs) located at strategic points around the grid such as substations and switching facilities. The PMUs measure the voltage and current of electrical waveforms on the grid at a rate of 30 samples per second and send their data to the NASPI network. Since accurate time stamping is required for the data, PMUs synchronize using GPS signals, hence the name SynchroPhasor. The initiative envisions a large number of such PMUs that would input their data to phasor data concentrators (PDCs), and then by way of phasor gateways (PGs), onto the real-time, grid-wide NASPInet data bus.

At various monitoring centers there will be systems that archive the data as well as run applications that can make use of it for detecting potential failures and or responding to failures in a timely enough manner to avoid huge disruptive blackouts. There will also be strategically placed intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) that can receive data and issue control commands, such as tripping circuit breakers if they detect anomalous conditions. Applications will enable operators to do things like visualize grid conditions using Google Earth overlays. Historical data will be available for later analysis and improvement. The ambitions of the NASPI project alone will call for enormous embedded (and IT) computing resources as well as network and high-speed I/O. And as for software development, well...

Note that NASPI does not itself appear to be what we normally think of as the “Smart Grid.” However, it does provide an infrastructure and a foundation of basic data that can be utilized in realizing a smart grid, and it represents a huge opportunity for embedded computing engineers and companies to support the different expertise and goals of electrical power engineers who are working to modernize the North American power grid in order to make it more reliable and more efficient. It is upon this foundation that it will be possible to implement an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and the visualization technologies that will enable the reliable connection of decentralized power sources, the intelligent metering that can account for energy put onto the grid as well as energy drawn from the grid by individual consumers. It will enable applications that can detect impending failures and provide for the more efficient distribution of power across the grid. Minimizing the distance from electricity generation to electricity consumption has the potential for enormous savings.

This will be made possible by the vision and expertise of power engineers teamed with the expertise of embedded developers and semiconductor manufacturers. By building on a solid infrastructure, the potential of smart appliances can be realized, the inclusion of alternative energy sources can be achieved, and a vast number of applications can be developed that we may not have thought of yet. It turns out that there are a whole bunch of things that haven’t been invented yet.