University of Missouri-Rolla (UMR) researchers developing ways to protect power systems from overloads may also be developing a system to thwart terrorist threats to the nation’s power grid.

Bruce McMillin, a UMR computer science professor, and Mariesa Crow, a UMR electrical engineering professor, are working on locally embedded controllers that are placed in the electric transmission systems to regulate power flow. These flexible alternating current transmission (FACTS) system devices will correct power flow problems and guard against failures.

McMillin is focusing on the computers that will control the FACTS devices. He said these computers are subject to failure by various means, including terrorist attacks.

“Hardware can fail, software can be incorrect and, in the worst case, computers can be taken over by terrorists and set to confuse the FACTS network to do exactly the wrong thing,” he said. “Before deploying a FACTS network, these failure and security problems must be addressed. If we can do all of this, we can build a FACTS network that will be resilient to failure. The results will be to ensure continued power distribution to consumers in the event of failures or attacks.”

FACTS devices will make the power systems more reliable, said Crow.

“We’re forcing more and more out of a structure that was built decades ago,” she said. “And we’re looking at new technologies that we can put in to get more out of that structure. Electricity is unlike many commodities in that it must be generated at the time that it is used. There is no storage, and because electricity takes the path of least impedance or resistance, this results in the overloading of power lines.”

Power suppliers have little control of power failures because they have no localized way to control the transmission network. The dated system struggles to forge on under the weight of consumer demand.

“What we’re looking for is a power grid that can heal itself,” said Crow.