It's a Big Grid, and Somebody Has to Furnish It

Having completed applications to obtain U.S. government money for smart grid projects, energy companies are readying themselves to improve operations in all parts of the power system, from the customer's premises to the substation and a control center

3 min read

Nearly fifteen years ago, shortly after joining IEEE Spectrum magazine to cover power and energy, I attended a briefing sponsored by Schweitzer Engineering, the pioneer in substation automation. At that time Schweitzer was not yet a household word, and the digital revolution was in its infancy as far as electrical transmission and distribution systems were concerned. So it made eminent sense for Schweitzer to bring people together to show how  every device in an electrical substation could now be replaced by state-of-the-art microprocessor-based equipment. Yet when I turned to my neighbors, two relatively young engineers from New York's Con Edison, one remarked: "The electro-mechanical switches and relays that we installed in the 1920s are still working flawlessly. Why would we replace them?"

What a difference 4.5 billion dollars make. That's the amount of money the U.S. stimulus bill allocates for direct smart-grid grant-making, to support endeavors such as replacing electromechanical relays with microprocessor-based equipment. The U.S. Department of Energy reportedly has received 570 applications from utilities and energy companies for grants totaling $14.6 billion, about triple the available funds. The way DOE winnows those grants will have a big impact on the direction grid enhancement takes, and so energy officials will have to sharpen their thinking about just what the smart grid means.

The process has been taking utility mangers outside their comfort zone as well. To be sure, many or most energy companies had internal wish lists for long-term grid improvements, but to be eligible for Federal  money, they have to convince DOE that projects are "shovel-ready" and yet not something they would have done anyway, absent public funding. "It's a sweet spot that's hard to hit," commented Marc Rosson of the Snohomish County Public Utility District in Everett, Washington, speaking recently at a press panel convened by SAP, the German database and software company.

The whole business of writing applications—"essays, not multiple choice!"—was entirely new to many utilities. So it's been a risky business not only for the DOE officials but for the energy companies themselves, observed Wayne R. Longcore, director of enterprise archicture and standards with Consumers Energy, in Jackson, Mich.  Companies seeking funds have had to be careful what they wish for, because once they get money and commit themselves to procurement strategies, they'll be stuck with what they've acquired for 20 or more years.

So what are they wishing for?

Let's just focus for a moment on the consumer's premise. In the smart grid experiment being conducted by xCel Energy and partners in Boulder, Colo., participants log onto the Internet to get a display showing how their home is using energy, hour to hour. It's nice display, but how many people are going to want to go to the trouble, ideally more than once per day, to check the details of their electricity consumption?

The Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, which serves 85,000 meters in the southeastern area of Texas between Austin and Houston, has a different idea. It has contracted with Control4, a maker of home-area network control and monitoring devices, to provide a compact and semi-portable device that somewhat resembles an iPhone, as Bluebonnet's representative Elizabeth Kana put it in the SAP panel.

Britain's Energy Saving Trust, according to a recent BBC report, has concluded that such user-friendly devices will be crucial to any smart meter rollout. The British government has decreed that all the country's homes are to be equipped with smart meters by 2020, but the energy trust takes the position that the meters will only lead to modified consumer behavior if they are coupled with stand-alone home monitors. The British government agrees in principle, but it remains to be seen whether purchase of such monitors will be subsidized.

Speaking at SAP's grid-week conference in Washington, a representative of Accenture said that one thing they've learned in smart grid experiments, including a collaboration with xCel, is that "you have to make it easy for the consumer," and "you have to have incentives." Xcel hopes with its SmartGridCity to persuade regulators to provide incentives in the form of things like real-time pricing, but is it making things easy enough for the consumer?

Another somewhat disappointing aspect of the demonstration program in Boulder has been the absence of smart appliances. Yet Whirlpool announced in March that by 2015 all its home appliances will be able to talk to the grid, and General Electric soon followed with a similar announcement, notes Consumers Energy's Wayne.

The news that ten residences under construction in Abu Dubai will be equipped with smart appliances capable of chatting with the grid inspired a worried colleague to imagine this conversation:

Grid: Energy prices up.

Refrigerator: OK, raising internal temperature.

Me: Low on ice and expecting guests for dinner. Uh, does this mean I have to go to the store?

Getting communications right will be essential to the smart grid at all levels, from interactive appliances to the highest level of system monitoring and control. So it's no wonder that the really big shots--companies like Intel, IBM, Microsoft, and Cisco—all are getting into the game. Cisco's Chambers was recently quoted as saying that his smart-grid development team has "almost an unlimited budget."

The Conversation (0)