Smart grid: What's here, what's needed, and what you should know now

August 01, 2010

Smart grid: What's here, what's needed, and what you should know now

Industry leaders discuss the technology breakthroughs needed to advance the smart grid.







Editor’s note: We thought it would be a nice change of pace to hear from a panel composed of experts farther down the supply chain working in and around utilities and alliances developing smart grid technology. Our virtual panelists comment on issues they see in making the smart grid a reality, providing insights into the problems associated with gathering, communicating, analyzing, and securing this real-time consumption data.

ECD: What’s the biggest technology gap in making the smart grid a reality?

MCGRANAGHAN: Let’s define the smart grid as the infrastructure and technologies that enable integration of the consumer and distributed resources (generation, renewables, storage, demand response, load control) with the operation of the entire grid and electricity markets, while also improving the reliability and security of the overall electric service. The biggest gap is the lack of inexpensive, standardized, and ubiquitous communications that deliver bandwidth, extreme reliability, and security for both control and management applications as well as basic information management and sharing applications. This broadband communications infrastructure does not need to be one technology, but it needs to extend all the way from central control systems to end-user devices.

SIMON: The gap is not so much related to a gap in technology but more with the need for ubiquitous, extensible, and robust real-time two-way communications. The task is selecting the right communications infrastructure to meet the needs now and in the future, and that entails appropriate standards and equipment interoperability.

HAMILTON: Interoperability standards. The GridWise Alliance, a coalition of many of the companies competing to develop technologies and solutions for a smarter grid, is adamantly technology neutral. All of the manufacturers and the utilities that will install those products desperately need agreed-upon interoperability standards to govern how all of these systems interact, so technology investments are not wasted. Because the GridWise Alliance looks holistically at the intersection of policy and market forces, our view is less about gaps and more about helping the right technology developments thrive.

VAN METER: The biggest technology gap is efficient, low-cost storage at both the grid level and the endpoints – homes, businesses, and micro-grids. If we had cheap, high-performance storage today, the timeframe for electric cars would move forward by years and the ability to deal with the non-coincidence of energy generation and energy demand would let us harvest large amounts of energy that are currently being wasted. Solar power would become a cheap and viable alternative if the energy created during the best periods of the day could be stored, and the same is true for wind. Far fewer power plants would be needed, and it could buy us the time we need to explore and develop emerging energy production and transmission solutions.

MACARI: Load shedding and Open Automated Demand Response will help efficiency in electricity generation, reducing the need for standby power plants not contributing power to the grid at that moment but burning fossil fuels 96 percent of the time. To further help with fossil fuel usage, integration of distributed generation of renewables is also a technological challenge to the smart grid.


Figure 2: ECD in 2D: Today’s electric grid needs a complete makeover in order to be smarter, more efficient, and utilize more renewable energy sources. Use your smartphone, scan this code, watch a video:




LOCKWOOD: The buzz around the smart grid has definitely raised awareness of the potential for providing energy usage and cost information for consumers and utilities to act upon. We are now seeing legislation proposed at the federal level pushing our industry toward near real-time consumption information and the associated impacts on electric bills. There are challenges with bridging the gap between the status quo of post-month energy information communications and an endgame where consumers can dictate their level of energy granularity. Cost-effective solutions for making this information readily available both in the customer’s home via an in-home display as well as on the utility’s normal customer portal are critical.

GUNTHER: The smart grid encompasses hundreds of diverse technologies and infrastructure elements. Answering this requires narrowing it down to one of seven National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Smart Grid Conceptual Model Domains. In the consumer domain (Figure 3), we need standardized information models supporting both real-time and historical energy consumption data. We also need technology, like what is detailed in proposed standards IEEE 1701, 1702, and 1703, that innovatively leverages information to empower consumers and their smart devices in making intelligent energy consumption choices, either automatically or with minimal human interaction. With NIST-driven work being done by IEEE and the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) to accelerate standards development, we are well on the way to achieving these goals.


Figure 3: The consumer domain within NIST’s Smart Grid Conceptual Model Domains needs standardized information models supporting real-time and historical energy consumption data.




ECD: How are you trying to solve these gaps?

LOCKWOOD: APS has proposed a two-year Home Energy Information pilot project to test how customers modify their behavior based on the timeliness of consumption data. We already provide day-behind hourly data visible online for customers and will be testing for a discernable impact on consumer behavior if we provide energy information as energy is being consumed. Lessons learned will drive how our business provides billing information in the future.

GUNTHER: As NIST SGIP Administrator, with support from the IEEE and others, EnerNex brings together key constituencies to identify common requirements and goals and implement standards as quickly as possible. With insight gained through collaborations with NIST, IEEE, and other stakeholders, we’re advising vendor clients about implementing embedded systems, protocol stacks, and other vital technologies needed to deploy these standards and ultimately meet consumer requirements and expectations. We’re also aiding our utility clients in building back-office systems with extensible architectures capable of adapting to and supporting rapid technology advancements and evolving regulations.

HAMILTON: The GridWise Alliance and its members work closely with NIST to ensure that the standards process is moving both expeditiously and comprehensively. However, most utilities are not waiting for completion of this process to begin deploying smart grid technologies. Our message is until the NIST process is complete, we should not choose just one platform, but allow open standards and protocols to foster a variety of technological advancements.

SIMON: We look to understand utilities’ specific needs today and their future strategic objectives, identify what they already have in place that can be used, and then build a network on top of that with expansion in mind. Related to standards and interoperability, we select products that are not necessarily bleeding edge but also not proprietary and have capability for more functions as the network grows.

MACARI: Sophisticated sensors, controls, and algorithms will increasingly help make the electric grid a smarter and more modern system. The California Smart Grid Center at California State University, Sacramento, is working with the California Energy Commission and various research centers to address these challenges. We are involved in demonstration and pilot projects with our local utility company, Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), as well as with PG&E, Southern California Edison, Cisco, and various solar power providers in California.

VAN METER: We are advancing storage solutions, including nanotech technology, more efficient fuel cells, and other alternatives, and we are collaborating with other leading companies and research entities in the field such as MIT. We are actively applying nanotechnology to advanced energy applications such as clean energy generation and energy storage. For example, at the molecular scale carbon nanotubes have a huge surface area ready to absorb energy or store electrons to create highly efficient renewable energy devices and powerful batteries. We understand and have built energy production and storage devices that “can’t fail” but must operate in constrained environments with little or no maintenance for years.

MCGRANAGHAN: Numerous efforts are under way:

  • The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) Intelligrid Program focuses on researching infrastructure for the smart grid – information integration, communications, and security requirements and technologies. NIST, DOE, and EPRI are working on security requirements for this communications and information infrastructure.
  • The NIST SGIP develops standards assuring interoperability in the infrastructure. The interface between the home area network and the smart grid must be defined and standardized to facilitate the development of appliances, thermostats, electric vehicle chargers, storage systems, photovoltaic interfaces, and more devices. The work of the OpenSG group in developing the requirements that are leading to the ZigBee Alliance Smart Energy Profile 2.0 standard is an excellent example of progress in this area.
  • The EPRI Smart Grid Demonstration Initiative ( is evaluating new technologies in actual deployments through demonstrations worldwide. These demonstrations are helping to verify the interoperability of standards and identify gaps that still need to be fixed (see Figure 4). In particular, we want to demonstrate that electric infrastructure communication standards will work transparently on multiple types of communications technologies and systems.


Figure 4: The EPRI Smart Grid Demonstration Initiative is evaluating new technologies to verify interoperability and indentify gaps that need to be filled.




ECD: What breakthrough in computing, networking, or sensing technology is needed to fully enable your vision for the smart grid?

VAN METER: We are focusing on breakthroughs in securing the smart grid, particularly in the cyber security arena. While programs such as North American Electric Reliability Corporation Critical Infrastructure Protection are important, they are only one step in addressing true secure grids. We are developing and implementing static and dynamic solutions that we think bring this key grid element to the next level. The ability to deal with cyber threats on a comprehensive, real-time basis is an essential component to success.

LOCKWOOD: Shifting the utility industry into the 21st century will require a quantum leap forward in the amount of data being gathered regarding the health and status of our distribution system. Problems arise in what to do with this data and how to make it presentable and understandable in real time. Software systems that can store, aggregate, and slice and dice data into usable formats will be instrumental in our ability to leverage future smart grid investments.

SIMON: Smart grids can be built today to achieve many of the benefits we’ve all talked about, as much of the equipment needed exists in some form now. We want to see continued innovation and improvements in automation, renewable energy, and storage. It’s more a function of cost and size of equipment. Lower costs, smaller footprints, and faster speeds will come with improvements over time, and the result will be more equipment installed in a better smart grid.

GUNTHER: NIST’s Smart Grid Conceptual Model (Figure 5) requires greater access to reasonably priced and reliable bandwidth across communications networks of all types, including IEEE 802 packet networks, to achieve optimal management of the core electric power infrastructure. There is also a need for durable sensing and computing technologies capable of operating in rugged electromagnetic environments and climates – something often underestimated. For example, IEEE 1613 defines standard environmental and testing requirements for communications networking devices in electric power substations.


Figure 5: For optimal management of the electric power infrastructure, NIST’s Smart Grid Conceptual Model requires greater access to reasonably priced and reliable bandwidth across networks.




MACARI: Transmission and distribution sensors need to be installed in key locations throughout the electric grid, and control algorithms and cryptographic technology are needed to help manage the traffic of free-flowing electrons throughout the entire system. These technologies are being deployed throughout the Sacramento region by SMUD with support from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act DOE funding. In addition, the campus of California State University, Sacramento, will undergo an $8.6 million upgrade to begin a self-contained micro-grid.

MCGRANAGHAN: Computing and networking technologies are quite advanced, as they are driven by the telecom and entertainment industries. The smart grid has a few requirements that stretch these technologies – security requirements, reliability requirements, performance across multiple types of physical media and systems – but the basic networking and computing technologies that are applied for the Internet, financial systems, entertainment systems, process control systems, and other applications are very usable in the smart grid. Sensing technologies are capable of supporting smart grid requirements, but the challenge is integrating all these sensors and intelligent controllers across the communications infrastructure and optimizing system performance.

HAMILTON: The trick will be the integration of breakthrough technologies into a system that allows large-scale, distributed generation of renewables along with new types of devices consuming electricity and new ways to view and manage demand. The traditional electric grid needs to integrate things like electric vehicles, distributed generation, and micro-grids – all interacting in real time with consumers – without jeopardizing reliability and safety. Energy storage technologies, dynamic forecasting, and instantaneous digital dispatch will be critical to smoothly integrate all of these moving parts.

ECD: What do you wish hardware/software engineers working on smart grid projects were more aware of?

MCGRANAGHAN: It is important that developers of hardware and software for the smart grid are aware of the standards development work under way because it’s the foundation for interoperability. Standards like IEC 61850 in substations, BACNET in commercial facilities, ZigBee Alliance Smart Energy Profile 2.0 in the premise (home/building) network, and the Common Information Model for systems integration are important. Products should focus on compatibility with these and other standards, and participation in the NIST SGIP can help.

MACARI: Hardware and software engineers need to gain knowledge in basic power systems and a deeper understanding of how the electric grid works, and then add knowledge of cyber security matters to any smart grid development.

VAN METER: As we design hardware, software, and firmware, we must ensure that they are fully compatible with current and emerging standards and with the interoperability guidelines being developed by NIST and SGIP. Also, full life-cycle, end-to-end cyber security is critical. Every day, leading companies work with cyber firms at every stage of the life cycle, from planning to development to integration to operation, thus ensuring a secure system. A secure component is useful, but unless the system is interoperable and secure, it will ultimately cause problems, potentially serious ones.

LOCKWOOD: Each utility is different, from how their distribution system is currently architected to how they design rates for their customer base. Open standards will go a long way in enabling future potential, but it will be the utility-specific customizability of those open standards that drives the success or failure of smart grid projects.

GUNTHER: Like critical medical systems, smart grid technologies carry significant human safety and economic implications. Smart grid engineers must follow through with a few key activities:

  • Design rugged, durable equipment: Electric power equipment operates in extreme climactic and electromagnetic environments, and communications and control systems must function properly despite close proximity to the flow of thousands of amps of current during system faults.
  • Accommodate device life cycles and remote accessibility requirements: As power systems devices have lifetimes of 20 years or more with minimal hands-on intervention, they need ample processing power, memory, and code space for new technology and features delivered via firmware updates.
  • Develop automated smart devices: Once the “new toy” lure of in-home smart energy consumption devices wears off, consumers won’t want to play energy manager, so smart devices need to act wisely with real-time data on consumers’ behalf without direct interaction.


Figure 6: ECD in 2D: The existing hardware in the grid also poses challenges that EPRI is addressing in its Electric Labs. Use your smartphone, scan this code, watch a video:




HAMILTON: We need to get young people interested in smart grid jobs that require the skills our utility workforce has now – operating a dangerous and complex electromechanical grid – completely linked with software, telecommunications, and analysis skills that will overlay that grid. Many utilities and manufacturers have been undertaking truly landmark research, but efforts to link those developments to the consumers are still lagging. Utilities intimately understand the grid and its operation and are responsive to their consumers, but this new world of consumers directly and actively engaged in the system is challenging.

SIMON: We are gravely concerned that the infrastructure being deployed for Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) is great for metering but will not be robust enough to achieve many of the other more innovative grid automations that bring significant benefits. Planning, designing, and building for the future and not just focusing on what is needed today is important.