How California ISO uses Google Maps, big data to manage power

Talk about big data: The California Independent System Operator Corporation has installed an 80-foot by 6.5-foot screen in its control room to display real-time power-grid data from thousands of endpoints. Its new system is powered by software from Space-Time Insight, whose software melds real-time geospatial data with Google Maps (s goog) to give ISO employees access to the data they need in a format that’s very useful. It might be the most-cutting edge ISO control room in the world.

The problem that required such an extreme solution is the massive scale at which everything takes place in California. The ISO, for example, manages about 85 percent of California’s power load, totaling more than 286 billion kWh of energy per year across more than 25,000 miles of line. Employees are inundated with data, said Jim McIntosh, an executive director at California ISO, so they needed something that would present it to them in a useful manner.

What Space-Time Insights’ software does is present data however it will be most beneficial for that customer’s particular needs. It maps data — from wherever and whenever it’s from — in-memory for fast access, organized geospatially as well as by time. The result might be the popular map view, or it might be any number of heat maps, correlation, trending or any other number of more-classical data views. Additionally, Space-Time’s Steve Erlich told me, customers can customize the application how they see fit to create their own visualizations, functions, data workflows or other capabilities.

McIntosh says his team used to get data updates at 4-second intervals, but now it gets updates by the millisecond, and presented in a very intuitive manner that shows and tells what’s going on. He analogized the switch to the Space-Time system to making the move from x-rays to MRIs. Other ISOs that have toured the control have been very impressed, he added, because it’s likely the most state-of-the-art in North America, if not the world.

The California ISO began using Space-Time in 2008 to combat wildfires in San Diego, but now uses it for a wide variety of tasks. To combat wildfires, McIntosh explained, the ISO is able to see where wildfires are and how they might move potentially hours earlier than previously possible, which lets it manage the power supply accordingly. It can proactively move power flow off of lines that might be affected by fire to protect from a future power loss and other damage that might occur should a fire hit live power lines.

Another use case for which the new system is ideal is making sure California’s grid is using the right data source at the right time. The ISO monitors data from about 4,500 nodes to determine what energy source will be the cheapest for any given location at any given time. This is made all the more difficult because of strong California mandates around using certain percentages of renewable energy. If wind conditions pick up and make that an ideal source for a certain location, it’s the ISO’s job — in the names of both economics and compliance — to make sure that wind isn’t being wasted.

As for Space-Time Insight, which was formed in 2005 and first got funded in 2008, it’s becoming very popular with utilities worldwide, Erlich said, but it’s expanding fast. Oil and gas, transportation and other industries that derive value from advanced visualization and real-time analysis are buying its software, and the company just signed up its first new media customer. Although who it is and how it’s using the Space-Time software are still a secret.