Special Report: The Smart Grid

smart grid illus


Taking the latest in computing and communications technology to make the electrical system more interactive, efficient, and robust is not a new idea. What’s new is that suddenly more than 10 billion federal dollars are being poured into it. But all that money will be well spent only if regulators are as inventive and intelligent as transmission and distribution engineers have been.


How Smart Can You and Your Local Electricity Grid Get?
Xcel Energy’s small-town test of smart-distribution and home-monitoring technology may set the stage for much bigger things


Toward a Renewables-Friendly Grid
A great deal of money and deep technical expertise are now in place to get the U.S. transmission system ready for lots more wind and some more solar. But in situations where entrepreneurs have tried to get renewable generation hooked up to existing electricity systems, they've sometimes had to stretch rules to the limit.


Smartening Up the Grid
Rebuilding electrical transmission to allow for a lot more smaller-scale renewable energy, while also accommodating heavy carriers and making the whole system more robust, will require fundamental regulatory reform at all levels

Probably the iconic image of what a smarter grid will mean is the smart meter. Companies and governments around the world are committing billions of dollars to the installation of systems that will tell both users and distributors how much electricity is being used at every consumption point, in real time. The most recent project is in Miami, where General Electric and Cisco, among others, are supplying meters, smarter thermostats and appliances, and networking technology for up to a million homes. But the project that’s the furthest along and has the highest ambitions—in terms of influence on regulators and equipment suppliers—is Xcel Energy’s SmartGridCity, in Boulder, Colo. IEEE Spectrum takes a look to see how homeowners might use their networked dashboards—or not!—to monitor and regulate their electricity usage.

Will Boulderites remember to tell their sprinkler system to stop watering their lawn when they hear while trekking in the Himalayas that the Southwest drought is getting worse than ever? And if they do, will this make potential makers and buyers of smart-grid equipment sit up and take notice all over the world? If Xcel doesn’t find the answers, then perhaps the Florida Power & Light Company will.

The Miami and Boulder projects are all about smart distribution. But the U.S. stimulus bill has allocated tens of billions of dollars for smart and renewables-friendly transmission. With an eye on that, Spectrum closely examines some cases in which wind entrepreneurs have had trouble getting prospective projects linked into the grid. In some cases, working with regulators, people getting into the green business have found ways to stretch and massage rules to get the turbines turning. But increasingly, regulators are finding it necessary to radically reform rules and devise entirely new frameworks to accommodate not just wind but every conceivable kind of renewables project.

If anyone knows the fatal flaws of transmission planning for renewables in the United States, it’s Dariush Shirmohammadi, reports Spectrum’s contributing editor Susan Arterian-Chang. In early 2006, as director of transmission for the southern region of California’s Independent System Operator, Shirmohammadi was given the task of producing a transmission service plan for moving wind power from rural Tehachapi—a mountain pass in Southern California between Bakersfield and the Mohave Desert—to consumers in greater Los Angeles.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the California Public Utilities Commission had patched together a succession of loosely organized working committees and task forces to produce plans to build transmission for renewables in Tehachapi. But more than a decade later, none of those plans had come to fruition. The reason, according to Shirmohammadi, gets to the heart of what’s wrong with transmission planning across the United States and why so little new transmission has been built for the last 30 years. “No one party can say, ‘Go ahead and build a line,’ ” he maintains, “but any one party can kill a transmission project.”

For a briefing on smart grid technology, watch IEEE TV's © A Smart Grid for Intelligent Energy Use video.