Information Trust Institute block of abstract images
Information Trust Institute block of abstract images

Overbye to examine impact of geomagnetically induced currents on power grid

ITI Researcher Thomas Overbye has been awarded a 5-month, $60,000 grant from the Electrical Power Research Institute (EPRI) to research the impact of geomagnetically induced currents on the power grid.

These currents, or GICs, are caused by geomagnetic disturbances (GMDs) that arise from solar activity. GMDs cause variations in the Earth’s magnetic field, thus inducing electric fields in the earth. These electric fields then cause GICs to flow in the Earth’s crust. The problem is that these GICs can flow through power system transmission lines and transformers and have the potential to cause serious electrical damage.

“These currents can flow into the power grid, and this can have an effect on power system equipment or cause issues with the supply of power, such as the loss of reactive power support leading to a potential voltage collapse,” said Komal Shetye, a research engineer working on the project. “One GMD has even caused a blackout in March 1989 in Quebec,” she said

Overbye, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who was recently elected into the National Academy of Engineering, said that there is some controversy over how badly a geomagnetic disturbance can impact the power grid, which is why he and Shetye are studying the issue.

“Some people think it could cause significant damage to our high-voltage transformers that would result in prolonged blackouts across a large part of the country, which would be devastating,” he said. “The concern is when one of these geomagnetic disturbances occurs and you get GICs, those flow in the high-voltage transformers, which can increase heating in the transformers and could permanently damage (them),” causing blackouts, he said.

While the grant is only for five months, Overbye believes they will be working on the project for a longer period of time. “We think the electric power industry is very interested so we anticipate future funding,” whether it’s through EPRI, NSF or another organization, he said. “And the University of Illinois is certainly one of the leaders in this area,” he said.

Shetye graduated from the University in 2011 with her master’s degree in electrical engineering and is now a research engineer for the Information Trust Institute.

“Komal has been doing a wonderful job on this project,” Overbye said. Shetye is currently conducting the studies for project, evaluating the impact GICs on power system models and evaluating the potential for voltage collapses.

Overbye’s general research areas are in power system operations, visualization and cyber security. Before becoming a professor at the Univesity, Overbye served on the U.S. DOE Power Outage Study Team and Blackout Investigation Team. He also helped develop the PowerWorld Simulator, which is used for power system analysis and visualization.