News / USA

Private US Company Powers 60 Million

PJM manages the flow of electricity to 60 million customers in 13 US states from its control room in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  (Courtesy PJM Interconnection)
PJM manages the flow of electricity to 60 million customers in 13 US states from its control room in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy PJM Interconnection)
VALLEY FORGE, Pennsylvania — Every day, as dusk falls over the United States, millions of street lights blink on in towns and cities across the country.

These quiet moments require a vast, unseen balancing act, because electricity demand and supply must be matched every second.

Perhaps no one carries more responsibility for getting this balance right than PJM Interconnection, a private company which manages the flow of electricity to 60 million customers in 13 mid-Atlantic U.S. states.

Traffic cop

As one of the oldest businesses of its kind, PJM often advises neighboring regions or developing nations on how to manage complex energy-transmission systems. Its success is of special note in a week when a series of power black-outs have brought much of India to a standstill.

PJM's control center, in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, is like a traffic officer for the region's electric power grid. Every day, it ensures that more than 1,600 power plants share more than 100,000 kilometers of transmission lines fairly, efficiently and reliably.

To do this, PJM runs an electricity marketplace where power plants declare the lowest price for which they would generate power the next day. Based on these prices and ever-changing demand and transmission line sizes, PJM tells each power plant exactly when to turn on or off.

“We’re looking in at one of the two PJM control rooms,” says Mike Bryson, PJM’s director of operations. "They’re both staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If one of the rooms is disabled, the other can operate independently.”

Centers of power

Bryson runs the company’s twin command centers. Each windowless underground room contains 10 desks, an American flag and a 20-meter-wide screen crowded with constantly-updated data.

At the screen’s center is a multicolored map, which shows, "the bulk electric system, with generators on the system, direction of flow on all the transmission lines, and then the red dots on there show you the generators," Bryson says. "Red is online. Green is offline.”

That's right, red is on. Green is off.

“That’s electrical engineering," Bryson says. "It’s the opposite of what’s intuitive.”  

Scorching summer days can be the hardest to manage. With millions of air conditioners driving electricity demand up, PJM will sometimes offer generators 50 times the usual non-peak price for electricity.

“That’s really telling everybody ‘Hey, we need everybody on because we don’t want to lose any customers,’” Bryson says.

Digital demands

Planning ahead is more important than ever in the digital age.

"The reliability of electricity is much more important than it was...25 years ago, before we all had computers and the Internet and all kinds of electronic devices," says Terry Boston, PJM’s President and CEO. "We keep building... new infrastructure each and every year to make sure it's reliable."

Just as America’s energy needs are changing, so are its energy sources. Coal, hydro and nuclear are still key, but natural gas use is growing rapidly. PJM is also working to integrate wind and solar, even though these renewable sources produce power at varying rates.   

“When I started my career, I was writing software to optimize the generators to match the load," says Boston. "Now I’m trying to match the load to the variable generators.”

Demand response

For instance, when supply gets tight, PJM can now alert colleges or factories to turn off equipment. That’s called “demand response” and Bryson is glad to have that flexibility.

“We have, going into this summer, over 9,000 megawatts of demand response throughout the system," Bryson says. "That’s the equivalent of nine nuclear plants.”

That sort of highly-interactive communication has its risks. And, in recent years, PJM’s focus on security has expanded to address the possibility of sophisticated Internet-based attacks on the transmission system.

But as complex as the work at PJM can be, there’s one display that’s simple and it’s Bryson’s favorite.

“It’s what I call the control panel," he says. "The idea is to keep that little green ball in the middle. Keep it in the blue. If it goes into the red, you want to steer it back in. We do that by raising and lowering generation. If we had a joystick to move it, it would be a lot easier.”

Yet every evening as the street lights blink on again in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and all the towns in between, it’s a reminder that - even without a joystick - PJM’s operators have the region’s power grid well in hand.

You May Like

Ukraine Purges Interior Ministry Leadership With Pro-Russian Ties

Interior Minister Avakov says 91 people 'in positions of leadership' have been fired, including 8 generals found to have links to past pro-Moscow governments More

US Airlines Point to Additional Problems of any Ebola Travel Ban

Airline officials note that even under travel ban, they may not be able to determine where passenger set out from, as there are no direct flights from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone More

Nigerian President to Seek Another Term

Goodluck Jonathan has faced intense criticism for failing to stop Boko Haram militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid