Power grid upgrades may cause blackouts, warns Braess’s paradox

This article summarizes a recently-published article in the New Journal of Physics, which focuses on Braess’s paradox as it pertains to power grids in cities. As we learned in class, Braess’s paradox can be summed up as the idea that adding more pathways in a network can counterintuitively slow the network down. For example, we discussed in lecture how adding an additional roadway between San Francisco and Palo Alto could actually cause more congestion and longer travel times. In this article, however, the researchers studied the way in which Braess’s paradox effects the way electric companies must carefully determine if and how they should add in new power lines to the network.

Just as we learned that adding a new roadway can slow traffic, the researchers discovered that adding in a new power line can “decrease total grid capacity.” Now, they also found that “on average” adding new links did not greatly affect the network’s capacity. However, adding “specific additional links” in key places did in fact decrease total grid capacity. This demonstrates how the hypothetical situation discussed in class becomes far more complicated when applied to a real-life scenario. In this case, electricity companies must figure out how to increase the capacity of a network (to meet the demands of an increasing population) while also making sure to not slow the network down by adding lines in the incorrect places. The article did not go on to specify how the companies would identify which additional power lines would slow the network down. One could imagine, though, that the companies would run a computer simulation of the power grid to determine how many power lines they would need to add (and where to add them) in order to meet a given demand for electricity.

In addition to adding new power lines in the correct places, Braess’s paradox also suggests that electricity companies could remove certain power lines to increase the grid’s capacity. Again, this demonstrates the heightened complexity of Braess’s paradox when no longer viewed in an idealized setting. This introduces another level of complexity to an electricity company’s problem. Not only must they look for places to add new power lines in without jamming the network, but they must also look for power lines that are jamming up the network and remove them.

The implications of this study are immense considering the strain that will be placed on power grids in the coming years as the global population swells. The article suggests that if electricity companies do not heed the warnings the researchers have presented, power grids could quickly become overwhelmed, resulting in sweeping blackouts. In order to prevent blackouts from occurring, power companies must look to optimize grid capacity while keeping the teachings of Braess’s paradox in mind. This means that they have to carefully add in new power lines that will increase the grid’s capacity and also remove power lines that may be decreasing the grid’s capacity.

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