Smart Grid Momentum Surges

Feb. 20, 2008
Underlying this trend is the digital technology and new products that will enable automatic, two-way communication between the electrical appliance and the generator

If the clustering of news around a particular topic is the sign of a trend (and I think it is), then one must be aware that the momentum toward a “Smart Grid” has dramatically increased in the past few months. The term means different things to different people; until a final definition emerges, let’s say that a Smart Grid is an electrical system that enables both buyers and sellers of power to automatically control their roles for the improved bottom lines of both.

Underlying this trend is the digital technology and new products that will enable automatic, two-way communication between the electrical appliance and the generator. The Smart Grid has to be automatically controlled because the mergers of electric systems into larger and larger regions, and the additions of so many independent generators and renewable sources, which all must be precisely synchronized at 60Hz (cycles per second), have grown beyond the ability of human operators to control it all. The electric-power system in the United States consists of more than 9,200 electric generating units, with more than 950,000 megawatts of generating capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines (more than 210,000 miles of the transmission lines are rated at 230 kilovolts [kV] or higher). In addition, approximately 150 control centers manage the flow of electricity through the system. If that sounds a bit scary, welcome to your future.

As in many areas, electrical-control technology seems to be taking on a life of its own. Think of the airline pilot who punches in his destination at takeoff and sits back to let the GPS navigation system take him there. It works great as long as it works, but where is the back-up plan in case there is a system malfunction? Does anyone in the cockpit recall how to do celestial navigation or read the radio navigation charts? I know a captain who does some part-time work from his laptop as the plane flies on GPS autopilot. That illustrates, as I see it, the danger in the present rush to an automated smart electrical grid.

Some of the push for this trend comes from the “success” of the telecommunications options over the past decade or so. A recent Smart Grid advocacy white paper from IBM observed, “The telecomm industry was once nearly as regulated as the electric-power industry. It was transformed in the early 1980s by policy changes and legal decisions that opened up competition. Within a decade, consumers had 10 times the choices they had before. Today, urban-dwelling consumers can choose between cable companies, local providers, cell-phone companies, long-distance providers, and voice-over-IP services. They can receive calls on a variety of land phones, roam phones, cell phones, computer-attached phones, PBXs, and satellite phones.”

Choosing the best thing to hang in your ear is a challenge to many folks who feel overwhelmed with the changes. Some providers have found a gold mine in communications equipment and services, while others are squeezed by the competition until they can no longer keep up. Video cameras used to require a large tripod and technicians to operate; now they come in the handset used by your average grade-schooler. The advocates of these changes claim that they are good for both the consumers and the investors who succeed in leading-edge development. They have enabled new connections between people that are transparent to the users who are free to concentrate on the results at either end. The same kinds of claims are being made for the emerging Smart Grid technology.

An analysis of the IBM white paper quote noted earlier, made by the, was posted as follows:

IBM acknowledges that the Smart Grid is the foundation for all this change, allowing demand response, efficiency, and other programs that give customers more choice. Combined with rising energy costs and climate-change concerns, Smart Grid technology is radically redefining the relationship between utilities and their customers. As a result, says IBM:

  • Demand management will expand dramatically.
  • Self generation will make tremendous inroads.
  • Meaningful consumer switching (between utilities) will emerge in most competitive markets.
  • Business models will be a stark departure from a decades-old value chain.

That’s pretty radical. Yet, IBM believes that the coming era of customer choice can be a good thing for utilities that embrace it. Utilities prepared to share responsibilities with customers will have a significant competitive advantage, the white paper predicts. Technology now makes Smart Grid and customer choice possible. More and more policymakers want these things. Customers want them. Forward-thinking vendors (such as IBM) are gearing up for it. Progressive utilities are building out their pilot projects. Can you say inevitable?

Inevitable it does seem to be. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) announced it has launched a regional initiative to test and speed adoption of new Smart Grid technologies intended to make the power grid more resilient and efficient. Through this initiative, known as the Pacific Northwest GridWise™ Demonstration projects, PNNL researchers expect to gain insight into energy consumers’ behavior. At the same time, the projects will test new technologies designed to bring the electric transmission system into the Information Age. The results of this project could influence how power utilities operate, how customers decide to use power, and how power-hungry appliances are designed.

The press release about the initiative stated, “About 300 volunteers on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in Yakima and in Gresham, OR, will test equipment that is expected to make the grid more reliable while offsetting huge investments in new transmission and distribution equipment. A new combination of devices, software, and advanced analytical tools will give homeowners more information about their energy use and cost. Researchers want to know if having these tools will cause homeowners to modify their behavior. Approximately 200 homes will receive real-time price information through a broadband Internet connection and automated equipment that will adjust energy use based on price. In addition, some customers will have computer chips embedded in their dryers and water heaters that can sense when the power-transmission system is under stress and automatically turn off certain functions briefly until the grid can be stabilized by power operators. ‘The technologies we’re testing will turn today’s appliances, which are as dumb as stones with regard to the power grid, into full partners in grid operations,’ says Rob Pratt, GridWise program manager at PNNL in Richland, WA. The year-long study is part of the Pacific Northwest GridWise Demonstration, a project funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Northwest utilities, appliance manufacturers, and technology companies also are supporting this effort to demonstrate the devices and assess the resulting consumer response.”

To add more momentum to the Smart Grid: On Dec. 19, 2007, President Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, HR 6, which became PL 110-140. According to a New York Times article, it is “legislation that will slowly, but fundamentally, change the cars Americans drive, the fuel they burn, the way they light their homes, and the price they pay for food … ” On Dec. 20, 2007, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) issued a report on Smart Grid, provided for in Title XIII of the act. “The term ‘Smart Grid’ refers to a distribution system that allows for flow of information from a customer’s meter in two directions: both inside the building to thermostats, appliances, and other devices, and back to the utility … The goal is to use advanced, information-based technologies to increase power-grid efficiency, reliability, and flexibility, and reduce the rate at which additional electric-utility infrastructure needs to be built.”

As summarized by CRS: “The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (16 USC 2621 (d)) is amended to require each state to consider requiring electric utilities to demonstrate that, prior to investing in non-advanced grid technologies, Smart Grid technology is determined not to be appropriate. States must also consider regulatory standards that allow utilities to recover Smart Grid investments through rates.”

Provisions of the new law also require the National Institute of Standards and Technology to be the lead agency to develop standards and protocols; creating a research, development, and demonstration program for Smart Grid technologies at the Department of Energy; and providing federal matching funds for portions of qualified Smart Grid investments. This law is so far-reaching that I will have more to say about it in next month’s Bottom Line Energy Issues.

So, if you are a building manager who is responsible for continuing education of your staff, keeping up with the Smart Grid now must be on your schedule. In other words, get with the program or risk being left behind.

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