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Smart Grid Worth Studying

March 1, 2009
You can’t get far these days without hearing about the smart grid. What is it? Can it save the world?

There are about a dozen old manual typewriters sitting around my house, dating back to the early 1900s. They're marvelous machines. But while it's fun to take them apart and see how all the intricate pieces work together, and they do make a wonderful sound, after more than twenty years of writing on computers I find typewriters frustrating. All they do is print — no memory, no spreadsheets, no e-mail, no Wikipedia — I can't even move a paragraph without a pair of scissors.

Some have described the U.S. electric power grid as the most marvelous machine ever made. And yet, it has many of the same limitations as my old typewriters. It's great for delivering electricity from a power plant to your home, but if a branch from your neighbor's overgrown silver maple falls on the line, the power company has to rely on you to call and tell them. It's a system design older than my oldest Underwood, and yet the technology to make the grid smart and responsive has been around for years. Now, with the smart grid included in the recently enacted stimulus plan, the government seems committed to putting that technology to use nationwide.

The smart grid refers to an assortment of technologies that can make electrical power more reliable, cleaner (in terms of both power quality and the side effects of power generation) and more efficient. It involves the deployment of sensing, measurement and communication technologies along the transmission and distribution grid, the use of more automated control technologies that use input from those sensors to manage the flow of power, the spread of technologies to support the addition of various alternative sources of power to the grid and the implementation of smart metering to allow both the utility and the user greater control of electrical loads. It also involves the rebuilding of large parts of the power grid and extending it into areas where new sources of generation — large-scale solar and wind, in particular — are being developed.

The overall concepts enmeshed in the smart grid are not at all new. What is new is the political and economic moment that has suddenly brought it into national awareness. Of course, the circumstances causing the United States to look hard at its power grid and consider investing serious money in a wholesale upgrade have more to do with ill-managed risks in banking and credit than with cables and towers and switches and sensors and smart meters. Be that as it may, the willingness of the current administration to gather political support for the idea as a central part of its solution to the economic crisis may prove to be pivotal in the grid's development.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — the stimulus package passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last month — includes $11 billion specifically to implement smart grid technologies throughout the country, plus $13.75 billion for related initiatives and upgrades to transmission systems.

High-profile companies such as General Electric Co. and Google have done a lot recently to raise awareness of the smart grid concept — through Super Bowl advertising, in GE's case (see sidebar, “Smart Grid in the Public Mind”), and in Google's announcement that it will launch a service called Google PowerMeter that will allow consumers to access the system's brains over the Internet to monitor and control their power usage.

It may be a bit galling to people and companies who've been pushing for deployment of smart grid technologies for more than a decade to see the concept suddenly dolled up, co-opted by politicians and treated as though it were entirely new. But like the people who've been pushing for compact fluorescent lamps or solar energy since the 1970s, there must also be a satisfaction and excitement that the time has finally come — that at last people are starting to listen, starting to “get it,” and we can finally begin to move forward in a more serious way.

Talk to the stewards of the nation's roads and bridges, or those responsible for the air traffic control system. Those, too, are fundamental to the safety and productivity of the nation, both are also long overdue for a serious effort to integrate technologies and concepts developed since the 1950s, and both have been neglected, largely because of their invisibility to the general public, while other technologies such as communications have leapt forward. People concerned about them undoubtedly would welcome something more positive than a collapsing interstate bridge or a mid-air collision to raise public awareness to the level of supporting substantial new investment.

Anyway, what's in it for you? How can your company take part in providing the equipment needed to build and use the smart grid? Following is a quick introduction to the various technologies and concepts included under the smart grid umbrella, offered as a starting point and background source to help you find the niches where your company can play a role. Electrical Wholesaling will continue covering all these topics in more detail in the coming months.

The Bones

For the nation as a whole, perhaps the most valuable aspect of the smart grid undertaking falls on the dumb side. Before any kind of intelligence can be added to the grid on a nationwide scale, the grid itself needs a general upgrade and restructuring.

People talk about the electrical grid as though it were one big homogeneous system, but in fact it's a patchwork of connected regional grids (each composed of many subsystems). One drawback of these legacy systems is that they were built to move power in one direction — from the power plant to the end user. That made sense half a century ago, but it now limits the system's ability to handle distributed power such as from rooftop solar panels and wind turbines, and eventually plug-in electric vehicles and fuel cells. In addition, their radial design lacks the flexibility of a network structure for routing around problems.

Many of the subsystems are at or approaching their operational limits, according to a 2008 survey by engineering firm Black & Veatch, Overland Park, Kan. “Only about half of utility field equipment, including generation and transmission facilities, is still within their planned service lives — 41 percent to 51 percent for IOUs [investor-owned utilities] and 45 percent to 54 percent for munis [municipal power companies] and co-ops. The remainder is at the end of the service life or is overdue for replacement,” the survey said.

For the smart grid to become a reality at any significant scale, power companies across the country will have to invest in raising the capacity and reliability of their transmission and distribution systems. The stimulus package supports this renovation with $6 billion for renewable energy and electric transmission technology loan guarantees, plus $3.25 billion for the Western Area Power Administration for power transmission system upgrades.

The Brains

For electrical distributors active in the utility market, even the smart aspect of this new plan is old hat. Some utilities have been deploying and testing increasingly sophisticated systems for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) in the electrical grid for a couple of decades now. The technology is known, it's tested and it's out there, though utilities vary widely in their use of it, and more advanced sensor, communication, control and information technologies continue to be developed.

Deployment of the systems to this point has depended on the utilities' ability to justify the expense of testing and development to their ratepayers, shareholders and regulatory boards. Part of the stimulus plan calls for changing utilities' compensation models. Existing regulatory environments in which the power companies operate base the utilities' revenues on the amount of power sold, with no reward for increases in efficiency.

The use of incompatible and often proprietary protocols for control and communication has raised additional roadblocks to getting the systems to work together.

To address these issues, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Electricity Delivery & Energy Reliability is leading an industry effort called the GridWise Initiative to promote interoperability among utility systems using an “open but secure” grid architecture. The initiative works through research and development partnerships with other government programs and the private sector. They intend to demonstrate a working system by 2015 capable of cutting peak loads by 10 percent. The stimulus package includes $4.5 billion in funding to support this effort.

A smart grid is designed to be “self-healing” and more resistant to man-made and natural disruptions by enabling the system to identify and isolate power problems and route around them automatically. The smart grid also stresses power quality and reliability. According to a DOE publication, outages and power-quality problems cost U.S. businesses more than $100 billion in an average year.

The Environment

Several of the strongest arguments for the smart grid focus on issues of environmental quality and energy conservation. Some in the industry estimate that the conversion to a smart grid could save as much as 41 gigawatts of power generation through efficiencies alone.

Much of that savings comes from demand response systems, where the generation source can interact more or less directly with the individual loads in a building, timing the start of a clothes dryer, for instance, to flatten the demand curve at peak times. Some subsystems in the U.S. electrical grid see peak-to-base ratios of 70:1. Anything that lowers that peak demand removes the need for additional reserve generators. Demand response systems also enable utilities to offer varying rates depending on the time of use and allow consumers to fine-tune their energy consumption to save money by programming their smart loads to draw power only when rates are cheapest.

Smart grid technology is critical to efforts to integrate alternative energy sources into the mix of generation options. Wind and solar power fluctuate constantly with the movement of the sun, passing clouds and changing weather, which requires a system with the intelligence to adapt by bringing more power from another source such as stand-by natural gas generation to meet demand.

A smart grid is also necessary if the nation is to shift toward electric vehicles. Since plug-in hybrids will require a place to plug in, they will create their own challenges for the peak-to-base fluctuations of demand. The sheer number of cars on the road, if switched to electric, would far outstrip the capacity of the grid. The smart grid can also potentially use the batteries of plugged-in vehicles as distributed temporary storage to further smooth out fluctuations in current.

The Dwellings

For mainline electrical distributors that aren't already supplying high-voltage equipment to the power companies, the smarts of the transmission and distribution grid won't mean much in the way of business. The real opportunity lies in providing the smart, controllable products within the buildings to interact with the utilities' demand management systems to provide benefits to the occupants.

For ideas like demand response to have any meaning, it will be necessary to build more intelligence into the end-user side of things. Facilities management systems and smart controls for electrical loads are likely to work their way into LEED certifications and other drivers of product selection, say some in the industry.

Who knows? The smart grid may actually bring the decades-old “smart house” concept back to life with a new purpose, along with further advances in automation and control systems for large commercial buildings, factories, shopping centers and schools.

The Rollout

None of this is going to happen overnight, of course. Building out and refurbishing the transmission grid will be a major long-term project.

Meanwhile, keep your eye on cities like Boulder, Colo., and Austin, Texas, which are among the cities taking the lead in deploying and proof-testing the smart grid concept. The lessons learned in those build-outs will do a lot to influence how smart grid applications are viewed by the public.

Smart Grid in the Public Mind

Awareness of the smart grid concept — or at least of the term itself — got a boost in January from a commercial by General Electric Co. that debuted during the Super Bowl telecast. The 30-second computer animated spot, titled “Scarecrow,” has a scarecrow climbing around on a transmission tower and dancing on power lines, singing “If I Only Had a Brain” from the Wizard of Oz.

If comments from viewers of the commercial on YouTube ( a month later are any indication, there's still some work to be done to raise public understanding of the smart grid:

“I love this commercial. I don't know what smartgrid technology is, nor do I care. I just like the song!”

“This ad cost $3M just for placement. What's missing is the agenda behind it. Big Bro wants to track what you do in your daily life.”

“So where do I buy this smart grid technology? (sarcasm)”

“I love Wizard of Oz. My daughters love the Wizard of Oz. We were taught not to play or go near power lines or facilities.

It's a little irresponsible for GE to have the Scarecrow playing in a dangerous area…come on now. Smart Grid Technology is great, but how about some common sense!!!”

Go to to see the commercial.

About the Author

Doug Chandler | Senior Staff Writer

Doug has been reporting and writing on the electrical industry for Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing since 1992 and still finds the industry’s evolution and the characters who inhabit its companies endlessly fascinating. That was true even before e-commerce, LED lighting and distributed generation began to disrupt so many of the electrical industry’s traditional practices.

Doug earned a BA in English Literature from the University of Kansas after spending a few years in KU’s William Allen White School of Journalism, then deciding he absolutely did not want to be a journalist. In the company of his wife, two kids, two dogs and two cats, he spends a lot of time in the garden and the kitchen – growing food, cooking, brewing beer – and helping to run the family coffee shop.

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