A seamless blending

Power, communications and IT on the smart grid

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine September/October 2010

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THE SMART GRID PROMISES VARIED AND UNPRECEDENTED benefits, ranging from consumer choice and utility efficiency to electricity reliability and environmental impact. All of them are predicated on the coming together of power, communications and information technologies.

Moving from today’s fragmented electrical delivery system to the next-generation smart grid is not, however, simply a story of integrating innovative technologies. The challenge of overcoming the culture clashes among the industries involved is considerable. Power engineers normally haven’t had much reason to interact with their communications and IT colleagues, but the smart grid demands seamless collaboration across disciplines.

How will power, communications and IT come together on the smart grid to drive advancements, and how are engineers from each collaborating to make it happen?

Missing links

Most power, communications and IT systems that will enable the smart grid are available today. Linking them seamlessly within and among utilities and users is the great frontier of development.

Interoperability, standards and cross-jurisdictional regulations are largely new territory for the power industry around the world. In the United States, proprietary distribution systems operated by about 3,000 separate utilities have historically comprised the electric delivery infrastructure, and regulation of electricity distribution and retail is fragmented across independent public utility commissions of separate states or regions.

This is why interconnection and intra-facing frameworks and strategies with design definitions have been key areas of focus for the IEEE’s P2030 Working Group. Formed in March 2009, the working group is creating a knowledge base addressing terminology, characteristics, functional performance and evaluation criteria, and the application of engineering principles for smart grid interoperability of the electric power system with end-use applications and loads. The guide is intended to inform the creation and/or enhancement of interconnection standards.

Already, the group has identified more than 70 standard interfaces that engineers will need to properly link smart grid components.

There are key questions that will have to be addressed in standards activities for the smart grid to achieve its potential, including:

  • What are the data-exchange requirements (in terms of billing, reporting and boundary crossing, for example) created by migration to electric-vehicle infrastructure?
  • What is necessary for data and physical security, given that a breach could compromise human safety and/or national security?
  • How can the smart grid connect utilities at different degrees of modernization, and how will it support today’s consumer appliances, meters and other systems as they are rendered “legacy” by eventual innovations?
  • What is entailed by support for utility service restoration, software updates and troubleshooting services?
  • As power generation becomes widely distributed across a utility’s customers, what will be required from manufacturers of generation technologies in terms of common interfaces?
  • Where are the best opportunities for “load shifting” by business and consumer users of power, and what will such a scenario mean in terms of time-of-day pricing, application of credits, remote billing, etc.?


Meeting of the minds

One reason that the smart grid is regarded as such a revolutionary and exciting engineering challenge is because of the uncommon diversity of engineers involved.

Within the working group, however, engineers from each of the industries primarily impacted have worked in concert from the outset of smart grid planning. Each of the separate task forces—Power Engineering Technology, Information Technology and Communications Technology—has dovetailed its efforts with the rest. In broad strokes, the job of deciding what information will be traded among which devices has fallen to power engineers. Communications and IT engineers then build on that work to consider the techniques and ramifications of data exchange.

The task forces are striving to establish common criteria across their disciplines. Along the way, they have identified many instances in which the different communities of engineers have not shared the same language. The words “reliability” and “network,” for example, mean different things in power engineering than they do in communications and IT.

Behavioral differences exist, too. Standards development, for example, has been a shorter-duration, more frequently revisited activity that involves more hands in communications and IT than in power.

Resolving these cultural discrepancies is a key step toward bringing together power, communications and information technologies on the smart grid—and eventually realizing the full sweep of its benefits.

The smart grid is bringing together power, communications and IT. To ensure the varied technologies interlink seamlessly and successfully over the long term, the smart grid today demands a meeting of diverse engineering minds.

This article written by Dick DeBlasio.

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