Smart grid simulations: giving utilities a place to start

Phil Carson | Mar 16, 2010


The phrase "smart grid demonstration project" has become linked to the phrase "stimulus grant" by repetition, mostly of news surrounding the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) move last year to jump-start projects that promise widely applicable results.

But, of course, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has been working on smart grid demonstration projects with nearly a score of member utilities since before the DOE's cannonball dive in the pool created all those ripples.

Call me a geek, but I love this stuff. Well ahead of any individual utility's ability to cobble together all the seemingly elusive aspects of a smart grid, EPRI and its member utilities will simulate smart grid operations and take a peek at the future.

"One of the beauties of our simulation [work] is that it's a relatively low-cost way to walk through various scenarios," Matt Wakefield, EPRI's smart grid demo project manager told me. "Our goal is to uncover some surprises that maybe we didn't expect, without having to actually deploy the technology.

"Our hope is to get some high-level metrics, some visibility that will allow utilities to focus on a particular technology," Wakefield added. "So the results should give utilities a place to start that will have the highest likelihood of success."

Let's review EPRI's purpose in participating in these projects and look at an example - an American Electric Power (AEP) substation in South Bend, Ind. It's a working example of how two parties in this nascent industry are going to get from vision to reality.

The South Bend work focuses on one substation serving 10,000 customers, which has in place smart meters, a communications network, end-use tariffs and controls, distribution automation, volt/VAR control and modeling and simulation platforms.

This will enable AEP and EPRI to evaluate distributed and end-use technologies under consideration, including PV and concentrating solar, battery storage, natural gas-fired reciprocating engines, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, wind turbines and community energy storage (CES) units. This work will be aided by the use of two simulation platforms referred to as OpenDSS and GridLab-D.

EPRI and AEP are using physical data drawn from a year's operation at that South Bend substation to plug into a virtual power plant simulator (VPPS). An early lesson: that data needs a cleanup. "This is a relatively common industry issue," Wakefield said. "The quality of data in GIS (geo-spatial information) systems is not perfect."

In Phase One of the project, beginning this year, the community energy storage (CES) technology will be integrated into the simulator to gauge its contribution to peak load shaving. Other technologies will also be tested, one-by-one. We wrote about the CES piece, which received stimulus funding, in a past column.

In Phase Two, next year, AEP and EPRI will look at "cross-cutting," or combining multiple technologies in the simulation to see what synergies or negative interactions they might have.

AEP gets insight into how various smart grid technologies might affect its grid operations as they come online, while EPRI can extrapolate on the lessons learned, define new research directions and improve its own simulation tools.

Some readers of this column have complained that EPRI demonstration projects only test existing, proprietary technologies. Is that true? And, if so, why? 

"Good questions," the EPRI project manager said. "Our goal is to see what we can do with today's existing technology. We want to understand where we're at today and what can be done with today's capabilities and understand where there are gaps. We want to identify which applications have the most value and where the gaps are to achieve that value. One of the main goals is to identify opportunities for interoperability and integration on a system-wide scale. A lot of our activities are aligned with NIST's priority action plans. We're trying to test the communication protocols that NIST identified as strategically important.

"In some cases we're testing proprietary systems because that's all we've got," Wakefield continued. "We want to understand the underlying value. As an industry, we understand that there's greater value in open communications standards, anything that'll get us closer to interoperability. That's an agreed-upon position."

Sure, AEP has its motives for updating its grid, EPRI has its methods, but a collaboration of this nature has to produce useful insights.

That's my opinion. What's yours?

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily






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Virtual in The Netherlands


A reader from a vendor writes in to share that Hoogkerk, the Netherlands, is going live this month as what is claimed to be the first microgrid project in Europe to integrate a full-scale, operational “smart” residential community energy system. The community includes 25 interconnected residential homes equipped with micro-cogeneration units, hybrid heat pumps, PV solar panels, smart appliances and electric vehicles, and additional community-based power produced by a wind farm and a gas turbine.

 For the trial in Hoogkerk, twenty-five homes were virtually interconnected and provided with high-efficiency boilers, hybrid heat pumps, PV panels, smart meters, electric transport and smart household appliances. In these homes the washing machines come on only when the electricity price is at its lowest – e.g., when there is a surplus of solar energy. Together, the homes form a virtual power plant.

Are any of the EPRI/AEP

Are any of the EPRI/AEP pilots studying the consumer interface with the various smart grid applications? Are they doing anything with HEDs or dynamic pricing for the consumer?

Check in with EPRI


I can't answer your question off the top of my head. I'd advise going to the EPRI smart grid Website, where they've got overviews of the many projects. EPRI is great about taking enquiries, too.

Phil Carson