How Do They Synchronize Power Stations With The Grid?

There are probably times in every Hackaday reader’s life at which you see something and realise that the technology behind it is something you have always taken for granted but have never considered quite how it works. Where this is being written there was such a moment at the weekend, an acquaintance on an amateur radio field day posted a picture of three portable gas-powered alternators connected together and running in synchronization. In this case the alternators in question were fancy new ones with automatic electronic synchronization built-in, but it left the question: how do they do that? How do they connect a new power station to the grid, and bring it into synchronization with the line? There followed a casual web search, which in turn led to the video below the break of a bench-top demonstration.

If two AC sources are to be connected together to form a grid, they must match each other exactly in frequency, phase, and voltage. To not do so would be to risk excessive currents between the sources, which could damage them and the grid infrastructure. The video below from [BTCInstrumentation] demonstrates in the simplest form how the frequencies of two alternators can be matched, by measuring the frequency difference between them and adjusting their speed and thus frequency until they can be connected. In the video he uses neon bulbs which flash at the difference frequency between the two alternators, and demonstrates adjusting the speed of one until the bulbs are extinguished. The two alternators can then be connected, and will then act together to keep themselves in synchronization. There are further videos in which he shows us the same process using a strobe light, then demonstrates the alternators keeping themselves synchronized, and phase deviation between them.

Of course, utility employees probably do not spend their time gazing at flashing neon bulbs to sync their power stations. The same measurements are not performed by eye but by electromechanical or electronic systems with automatic control of the contactors, just as they are in the fancy electronic alternator mentioned earlier. But most of us have probably never had to think about synchronizing a set of alternators, so to see it demonstrated in such a simple manner should fill a knowledge gap even if it’s one only of idle curiosity.

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What Voltage for the All-DC House?

The war of the currents was fairly decisively won by AC. After all, whether you’ve got 110 V or 230 V coming out of your wall sockets, 50 Hz or 60 Hz, the whole world agrees that the frequency of oscillation should be strictly greater than zero. Technically, AC won out because of three intertwined facts. It was more economical to have a few big power plants rather than hundreds of thousands of tiny ones. This meant that power had to be transmitted over relatively long distances, which calls for higher voltages. And at the time, the AC transformer was the only way viable to step up and down voltages.

No, not that AC/DC

But that was then. We’re right now on the cusp of a power-generation revolution, at least if you believe the solar energy aficionados. And this means two things: local power that’s originally generated as DC. And that completely undoes two of the three factors in AC’s favor. (And efficient DC-DC converters kill the transformer.) No, we don’t think that there’s going to be a switch overnight, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it became more and more common to have two home electrical systems — one remote high-voltage AC provided by the utilities, and one locally generated low-voltage DC.

Why? Because most devices these days use low-voltage DC, with the notable exception of some big appliances. Batteries store DC. If more and more homes have some local DC generation capability, it stops making sense to convert the local DC to AC just to plug in a wall wart and convert it back to DC again. Hackaday’s [Jenny List] sidestepped a lot of this setup and went straight for the punchline in her article “Where’s my low-voltage DC wall socket?” and proposed a few solutions for the physical interconnects. But we’d like to back it up for a minute. When the low-voltage DC revolution comes, what voltage is it going to be?

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Tesla Vs. Edison

The phrase “Tesla vs. Edison” conjures up images of battling titans, mad scientists, from a bygone age. We can easily picture the two of them facing off, backed by glowing corona with lightning bolts emitting from their hands. The reality is a little different though. Their main point of contention was Tesla’s passion for AC vs. Edison’s drive to create DC power systems to power his lights. Their personalities also differed in many ways, the most relevant one here being their vastly different approaches to research. Here, then, is the story of their rivalry.

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Animated EV Charge Cable Enlightens Us

[ch00f] was searching for an idea to build for his father this Christmas, and cast his gaze across those novelty phone charging cables that have “flowing” LEDs along their length. Not one to stick to the small scale, he set out to create a flowing LED effect for a Tesla EV charger.

ch00f-led-ev-chargerThe basic components behind the build are a current transformer, a NeoPixel LED strip, and an ATtiny44 to run the show. But the quality of the build is where [ch00f]’s project really shines. The writeup is top notch — [ch00f] goes to great lengths showing every detail of the build. The project log covers the challenges of finding appropriate wiring & enclosures for the high power AC build, how to interface the current-sense transformer to the microcontroller, and shares [ch00f]’s techniques for testing the fit of components to ensure the best chance of getting the build right the first time. If you’ve ever gotten a breadboarded prototype humming along sweetly, only to suffer as you try to cram all the pieces into a tiny plastic box, you’ll definitely pick something up here.

Perhaps you’d like to check out this teardown of a Tesla Model S battery. Video after the break.

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Shocking Halloween Decoration

Sure, you could animate some Halloween lights using a microcontroller, some random number generation and some LEDs, and if the decorations are powered by AC, you could use some relays with your microcontroller. What if you don’t have that kind of time? [Gadget Addict] had some AC powered decorations that he’d previously animated with an Arduino and some relays, but this year wanted to do something quicker and simpler.

In another video, he goes over the wiring of a fluorescent starter to create a flickering effect with an incandescent light bulb. A fluorescent starter works because the current heats up a gas discharge tube which causes a bit of metal to bend and touch another, closing the circuit. A fluorescent bulb is a big enough load that the flowing current keeps the starter hot and, therefore, the circuit closed. If you wire the starter in series with a regular incandescent bulb, the starter heats up but the load isn’t big enough to keep the starter hot enough, so it cools down and the circuit breaks, which causes the starter to heat up again. This causes the bulb to flicker on and off. [Gadget Addict] uses two circuits with a fluorescent starter each wired to alternate bulbs in the decoration in order to get the effect to look a bit more random.

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Arduino Replaces Bad AC Thermostat, Hacker Stays Cool

Most of North America has been locked in a record-setting heat wave for the last two weeks, and cheap window AC units are flying out of the local big-box stores. Not all of these discount units undergo rigorous QC before sailing across the Pacific, though, and a few wonky thermostats are sure to get through. But with a little sweat-equity you can fix it with this Arduino thermostat and temperature display.

We’ll stipulate that an Arduino may be overkill for this application and that microcontrollers don’t belong in every project. But if it’s what you’ve got on hand, and you’re sick of waking up in a pool of sweat, then it’s a perfectly acceptable solution. It looks like [Engineering Nonsense] got lucky and had a unit with a low-current power switch, allowing him to use a small relay to control the AC. The control algorithm is simple enough – accept a setpoint from an encoder, read the temperature sensor, and turn the AC on or off accordingly. Setpoint and current temperature are displayed on an OLED screen. One improvement we’d suggest is adding a three-minute delay between power cycles like the faceplate of the AC states.

This project bears some resemblance to this Arduino-controlled AC, but it seems more hackish to us. And that’s a good thing – hackers have to keep cool somehow.

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Put a Reverse Engineered Power Meter in Your Toolkit

It seems that one can buy cheap power meters online and, well, that’s it. They work just fine, but to use them for anything else (like datalogging or control or…) they need a bit more work. The good news is that [Thomas Scherrer], alias [OZ2CPU], just did that reverse engineering work for us.

Inside these budget power meters, you’ll find an LCD driver, a power-monitoring chip, and an STM32F030, which is a low-cost ARM Cortex M0 chip that’s fun to play with on its own. [Thomas] traced out the SPI lines that the power-monitoring chip uses to talk to the microcontroller and broke in to snoop on the signals. Once he got an understanding of all the data, tossing an ATmega88 chip on the SPI line lets him exfiltrate it over a convenient asynchronous serial interface.

If you’re going to do this hack yourself, you should note that the internals of the power meter run at line voltage — the 3.3 V that powers the microcontroller floats on top of the 230 V coming out of [Thomas]’s wall plug. He took the necessary precautions with an isolation transformer while testing the device, and didn’t get shocked. That means that to get the serial data out, you’ll need to use optoisolation (or radio!) on the serial lines.

Now that we know how this thing works on the inside, it’s open-season for power-management hacks. Toss a mains socket and an ESP8266 in a box and you’ve got a WiFi-logging power meter that you can use anywhere, all for under $20. Sweet.