Don't go it alone

R&D pathway to smart grid begs for collaboration

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine July/August 2010


JUGGLING FOUR BOWLING PINS IS DIFFICULT enough, even for the polished entertainer.  But add four more pins to the mix, then light one or two on fire, and you might grasp a clearer understanding of the daunting demands facing California's investor-owned utilities as they navigate toward the smart grid of the next decade.  ''If you look at all of the policies and directives, 2020 is a really important year for us,'' said Mike Montoya, director of grid advancement at Southern California Edison (SCE). ''We're going to have to do a lot of things differently than we are today. It's going to be a challenge.''

Thus far, however, the IOUs seem to be up to the task. As expected, those involved in this transformation are broaching the topic in a no-drama, orderly fashion. For several months, Montoya and other SCE representatives have hunkered down with engineers and other professionals from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI),

Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (the sole municipal participant) to spell out key smart grid research and development priorities.

Devising a state road map
The California Energy Commission (CEC) spurred these technology-heavy conversations by introducing a project titled ''Defining the Pathway to the California Smart Grid of 2020.'' That was how commission officials asked IOUs to collaborate on devising a road map that supports the state's energy targets for energy efficiency, renewable portfolio standards, demand response and curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Their report is morphing through several stages before a completed vision emerges by the end of the year. 

''This whole road map process will give the commission a long-term view of what research we all need done,'' Montoya said, adding that the CEC will ultimately decide which R&D projects are funded.  Major R&D priorities identified by the IOUs fall into general categories that include interoperability, cyber security, compliance and testing, communications technology, information technology (IT) infrastructure, integrating renewables and upgrading workforce skills, said Mark McGranaghan, director of distribution and smart grid research for EPRI.  As is the case with other California utilities, SCE has been drafting its own internal smart grid plan. That blueprint serves as a useful guide for Montoya when he brainstorms with representatives from other IOUs.  ''We've been doing smart grid strategy for several years now,'' Montoya said. ''So for us, this is an extension of that. That puts us in a fairly good position to help the whole road map process along.''

California 2020
''Our goal is to achieve a common vision of where we want to be in 2020,'' McGranaghan said. ''It flows from policy mandates already in place in California. We have to make sure these are accommodated.''

In addition to a law that launches smart grid innovation to the forefront, other advanced legislation has set the enterprising Golden State apart as a leading force on the energy front. Measures include categories such as bulk power integration, distributed power generation, transportation electrification, energy efficiency and demand response.

 For instance, by 2020 California is supposed to be on track to generate one-third of its energy from renewables such as wind, solar and geothermal sources; have a million functioning solar roofs; incorporate roughly 600,000 plug-in electric vehicles on its roadways; save thousands of gigawatt hours of electricity through energy efficiency; and ensure that all new residences qualify as zero-energy homes.

In addition, another piece of legislation requires the state to slice its emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases 25 percent - to 1990 levels - by 2025. While all of these initiatives are admirable, each of them requires electric utilities to explore new technologies and find inventive ways to coordinate services with their customers.

R&D challenges looming
In interviews with Intelligent Utility, McGranaghan and Montoya offered perspective on half a dozen of the R&D challenges they will have to overcome to meet California's mandates and comply with upcoming smart grid requirements.

  • Customer Connections: How can utilities maximize energy efficiency and demand response in a new world of smart appliances, home area networks, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, microgrids and renewables? This requires not only properly sizing distribution circuits and transformers but also being vigilant that systems for necessities such as outage management, geographic information and customer information systems can ''talk'' to one another via a utility's communications backbone.


 ''Whether charging an electric vehicle or enabling an air conditioner to respond to demand response, all of these systems have to be effort-free on the part of the customer,'' McGranaghan said. ''It has to work and it has to be built-in and automatic.''

  • Integrating Renewables: On distribution lines, utilities want to know how inverters hold up when power from photovoltaic panels, windmills or geothermal sources travels both ways between a home and a substation. That means studying how efficiently microprocessor relays on circuit breakers - ones that communicate via a high-speed wireless signal - can locate faults to help the distribution grid ''self heal.'' In addition, utilities want to explore how they can use high-speed data from synchrophasors to monitor the health of their transmission lines. ''A lot of this is about storage and balance,'' Montoya said. ''We are developing our own models and planning with computer simulation.''


  • Cyber security: The need exists for an architecture that is open but defines security requirements in a robust manner.  ''It's a buzz word and should be because it's so important, especially for applications that involve control of the power system,'' McGranaghan said, adding that encryption is a vital piece.


  • Outfitting the workforce of the future: With half of its employees able to retire within the next five years, SCE is worried about bridging the knowledge gap with new hires.  ''With all of this change, what kind of employee do we need in the future and how do we train them?'' Montoya said. ''And we have to look at safety technologies if we have inexperienced folks.''


 Those concerns have prompted SCE to start experimenting with ''wearable computers'' and streaming video that would allow a worker in the field to solve problems by communicating in real time with an experienced employee back in the office.

  • IT Infrastructure: Managing the millions of pool pumps, thermostats, refrigerators, water heaters and other devices and appliances so load continues to match generation requires finding and installing the correct ''system of systems.'' ''More and more, the IT world is colliding with the grid world,'' Montoya said. ''All of these devices could be a part of how we operate the grid.''


  • Interoperability/Compliance and Testing: Starting with smart meters, all software and hardware has to allow for ''plug and play'' architecture. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has taken the lead on this aspect of the smart grid. 


''This is number one on everybody's list,'' McGranaghan said. ''We haven't even thought of some of the applications that will eventually be invented, but we need to make sure all of this works together.''  He is confident that IOUs can deliver a sensible R&D road map that meshes with California's needs, and that could serve as a model for other states pursuing a clearer course to the smart grid.  ''It's a big, complicated system with lots of different technologies,'' McGranaghan concluded. ''Managing the migration is a tremendous effort. The value propositions have to be created one at a time.''

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