For a U.S. state that represents the world's eighth-largest economy, keeping the lights on in California is no small job. That is why the California Independent System Operator Corp. (ISO) wanted a big and bold solution to address a host of challenges driven by the massive scale and diversity of the power grid under its charge.

From the deployment of new smart grid technologies such as smart meters that add increasing amounts of digital information about the grid, to the state's frequent wildfires and aggressive timetable for bringing renewable power sources online, the organization needs to capture and interpret a growing avalanche of data. Today, an 80-ft by 6.5-ft (24.3-m by 2-m) video-display wall in a state-of-the-art control center and innovative visual geospatial software are the embodiment of the ISO's groundbreaking vision for real-time data analysis and decision making.

Big Power Equals Big Data

The California ISO manages electricity flow for 80% of the state's power grid, delivering 289 million MWh annually to about 35 million consumers over 25,000 circuit miles (40,234 circuit km) of power lines. The ISO allocates space on transmission lines, tracks fires and other conditions that might affect the availability of power, and works to maximize reliability and cost-effectively match supply with demand. To keep up these responsibilities and catch any anomalies on the grid, the ISO's operators must analyze volumes of data from multiple inputs, including sensors, weather feeds, satellite imagery and more.

The ISO also is a major participant in California's ambitious agenda for addressing climate change. The state's goal is to generate 33% of its power from renewable sources by 2020. As part of this agenda, the ISO is rapidly developing wind and solar facilities, along with other alternative power sources. Currently, out of a total installed capacity of about 58,000 MW of power in California, approximately 8,000 MW are green power, with thousands of additional megawatts of renewable resources on the way. The need to balance the use of intermittent and highly variable renewable energy while ensuring the stability of the electric grid compounds the challenges the ISO faces.

Every Second Counts

In the past, California ISO operators viewed data in traditional tabular formats. But, with the growing volume of data and the complexities of correlating the data from multiple sources, it became increasingly difficult for operators to spot trends and anomalies, and respond quickly to changing conditions. In crisis situations, where every second counts, operators cannot afford to either spend time weeding through pages of data to find valuable information or miss critical red flags entirely.

In addition, each discipline within the ISO had its own independent software systems and processes, making collaboration and synchronization of information difficult, time-consuming and prone to misunderstandings and delays.

Finally, as the ISO ramped up its commitment to renewable energy sources to meet California's mandates, the volume and complexity of data continued to escalate. The grid operators, who needed to anticipate and react to weather changes and other factors that impact things like solar and wind production, were challenged to keep up.

Prompted by these issues, the California ISO wanted to find a way to efficiently integrate, analyze and act on all the many sources of incoming data so its operators could make better and faster decisions based on real-time, actionable information.

Intelligence That Can Be Seen

The California ISO embarked on a project to modernize its control centers, get a handle on exponential data growth and maintain the reliability of the power grid in the face of a growing demand for renewable energy.

To confront the issues and prepare for ever-increasing demands on the grid, the ISO implemented multidimensional geospatial displays that unify data from diverse sources, giving operators at-a-glance insight into multiple aspects and behaviors of California's grid. Using situational intelligence solutions from Space-Time Insight, the ISO's visual analytics system integrates data from pre-existing real-time systems and historical databases, overlays it with external feeds such as weather and wind speed, and presents the information in intuitive visual displays so grid operators can take immediate action, when needed.

The California ISO first deployed situational intelligence to see and respond to wildfires burning close to electric transmission lines. Using Space-Time Insight's Crisis Intelligence solution, the ISO was able to combine information on fires with wind speed and trajectory data, and overlay it on a map of the transmission system. Rather than having to compare all these separate sources of information manually, operators now are able to get a unified view of what is happening so they can quickly identify lines at risk. This enables the ISO to stay ahead of fast-moving crisis situations and work proactively with local utilities to develop action and contingency plans.

Based on the success of this deployment, the ISO extended its use of situational intelligence to the wholesale electricity market with Space-Time Insight's Market Intelligence solution. This system allows the ISO to visualize and act more efficiently on market prices across 4,500 locations on the grid and use the information feed to make decisions about where to source the most cost-effective energy.

Most recently, the California ISO implemented Space-Time Insight's Renewables Intelligence solution. With it, the ISO can integrate data related to all of the different renewable energy generation sources — including conventional hydroelectric, solar and wind — and view their varying real-time outputs and external impacts in any number of configurations. For example, one display combines weather feeds and cloud cover data with infrared solar imagery to show the impact of clouds and weather patterns on solar generators. Another display shows wind speed contours, allowing operators to see pockets of fast-moving air approaching the wind generation fleets. This is helpful in California where forecasting can be difficult because of different geographies and microclimates.

Using situational intelligence, dispatchers now have the ability to assess, in real time, current conditions — such as how unexpected storms, cloud cover and wind speed might impact solar fields and wind farms — so they can make appropriate adjustments to optimize the use of renewable power. In addition, the ISO can better leverage the data to stay within defined limits on the circuit path, which prevents damage to the power system infrastructure and helps to avoid millions of dollars in potential fines.

The Big Picture

The California ISO has incorporated each of the Space-Time Insight applications into a video wall that fronts its new control center. The video displays contain multiple layers of information that can be digested quickly, focusing on the availability and capacity of power plants, voltage stability, renewables forecasting, congestion management and grid reliability. While individual operators also have access to relevant information at their desktops, the 10 visualization screens on the video wall deliver a big-picture view of the entire system, ensuring optimal information sharing, as well as trend and anomaly detection.

For example, the video wall displays a rolling 24-hour view of the energy produced by the basic renewables groups. Color-coding indicates the usage levels of different energy sources. A dip in solar output is clearly visible during the night period, and the wind output reflects the variances in wind speed. One part of the display shows what small hydropower facilities (capable of producing up to 30 MW) are producing. Biomass, biogas and geothermal sources also are illustrated. By studying a 24-hour history and comparing the weather pattern for that period with the forecast for the next 24 hours, California ISO generation dispatchers can make more-accurate predictions about changing patterns and adjust their setpoints out to the generators. Alerts warn operators of potential problems.

The success of these new visualization capabilities is measured by how reliable the system is, how effectively renewables are being integrated into the system and how quickly operators can respond to potential risks. Today, the ISO operators are more productive despite a far more complex environment. The ISO also is better able to avoid blackouts and disruptions in supply, as well as increase the renewables level on the grid while maintaining reliability, which is the ultimate goal.

From X-Ray to MRI

The beauty of California ISO's situational intelligence system is it makes very complex data much easier to understand. There is much less need for operators to search through spreadsheets or comb through pages of text documents to make correlations or identify critical information. While the macro view of all the data is extremely valuable, operators can still dig into the details and perform multiple levels of granular analytics. By combining external data sources with internal data, polling the grid in millisecond intervals and presenting the results in an intuitive geospatial visual display, the ISO gets a far clearer and more actionable picture of all the information available.

The difference between the older one-line diagram displays and the new situational intelligence solutions is like comparing an X-ray with an MRI. The ISO operators now only need to look up at the display wall to get a sense of what is happening on the grid.


James McIntosh (jmcintosh@caiso.com) is director and executive operations advisor of the California ISO, where he is responsible for solving the operational challenges of renewable resource integration. He also is involved with creating renewable interconnection standards to meet grid-reliability requirements. McIntosh oversaw the design of the critical asset wing of the new ISO control center and brought on-line the first renewables dispatch desk in the United States. In helping to create what may be the most modern control center in the world, he sought to develop situational intelligence screens that would equip operators with tools integral to maintaining reliability as California achieves its renewable energy goals.

Companies mentioned:

California ISO www.caiso.com

Space-Time Insight www.spacetimeinsight.com