Change the grid, not the customer?
Industry veteran suggests emphasis on utility side
Steve Collier, an electrical engineer and IEEE smart grid "expert" (so designated due to his experience with the grid and the new technologies being applied to it), has worked in many roles in the power, telecom and software industries. We talked earlier this month about a few issues in grid modernization.
(Collier was featured in an IEEE smart grid interview earlier this year.)
Intelligent Utility: Your position is that the utility industry ought to focus more on wringing efficiencies from the grid than just going to the residential homeowner and small business looking for behavioral changes around peak use. What's your thinking?
Steve Collier: We should tackle why the grid is inadequate rather than just trying to change customers' expectations and behavior to accommodate its deficiencies. The recent wind-caused outages in the East are a case in point. Critical peak pricing and demand response provided no benefit. A smarter grid would have.
In the last 10 years or so, as documented in the U.S Department of Energy electric grid adequacy report, "Keeping the Lights On in the 21st Century," it has become clear that the existing grid and historical utility behavior will no longer suffice.
So we ask consumers to get smart because we've got a grid that's not? I think that most customers really have little interest in spending much time or effort changing how and when they use electricity. We should be concentrating more on what can be done on the utility's side of the meter instead of expecting the customers to do it all.
We need a smarter grid enabled by advanced sensors and controls and new planning and operating methods, not just accommodations by customers.
IU: Sensors and controls that automate the grid to the extent possible really are part and parcel of "smart grid," which is about extending intelligence down to the distribution system. I buy that. Don't some of those sensors and controls also benefit the customer, directly and indirectly?
Collier: You're right, there are many benefits to be gained from a smarter grid that is being monitored, analyzed and controlled in real time. And automation is the key. Many utilities and their customers are seeing benefits in automated outage management systems. A few utilities are improving efficiency through voltage optimization. Some smart meters can actually provide data that is useful for these kinds of applications. Unfortunately, though, most of the so-called smart meters really aren't. We need meters that respond automatically to price signals, power quality and reliability.
Ultimately I think a lot of these features and functions will be built directly into end-use devices. Moore's Law means that electronics are getting better and cheaper. And the Internet means everybody and everything will be in constant two-way, fast digital communications everywhere in the world.
The secret here is not rates that customers react to; it's rates and other parameters that devices react to in an "Internet of Things." You should be able to buy a black box and plug it into your Internet of things and all of a sudden a customer's appliances, rooftop photovoltaics, electric vehicle are all automatically reacting to price signals or the availability of wind generation or utility dispatch and control signals. These devices would be managed through the mobile devices that they are accustomed to using for everything else.
IU: Meanwhile, how do you see the path ahead for grid modernization, for what utilities can and should do to make existing infrastructure more efficient and resilient, while the industry works towards that future vision of de-centralization and automation?
Collier: There will obviously be a transition. We cannot transform the world's largest and most complex infrastructure overnight. But we must change our thinking about how we plan, construct and operate the grid in a new reality. And we can almost immediately improve economy, efficiency, reliability and customer service through a smarter grid. There are parallel paths here. One is the steady state path. What do we do today in day-to-day normal operating conditions? And what do we do to deal with emergency circumstances when we have straight-line winds for three hours that knock down power lines and trees or when an employee's mistake takes down the grid in Southern California and Arizona for a couple of days?
In the steady state, we are seeing emerging strategies such as distributed, automated energy management systems, demand reduction and conservations through voltage/VAR control and advanced asset management enabled by sensors and controls. We're even moving toward anticipating faults by reading subtleties in power quality in real-time. In responding to service interruptions and power quality problems, advanced sensors and controls and decision software allow us to serve customers better. We can isolate faults and re-route power to minimize impacts and restore service more quickly. Automated outage management systems can define and locate the problem more quickly and allow utilities to communicate estimated time to restoration to customers to reduce hardships and allow them to plan. Undergrounding needs another look, especially to see if costs could be lowered. Ultimately, we're looking at a decentralized grid for resiliency. That'll take time. Many forces are pushing changes in the utility business model and that's just one.
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