Sunday, 28 November 2010

Smart Grid - The Convergence of Low Tech and Hi Tech in Power Systems

The need to move from the grid as we have known it for the last 100 years or so to what we have been calling the smart grid can be characterized in many ways.  One of those characterizations is that we are merging old, brute stupid, low technology with new, super whiz bang computer driven high technology.  One of the problems with this characterizations is that it considers technology that is mature, works with high reliability, and is therefore almost invisible to the everyday person is somehow low technology.  In fact, the “traditional” electric power infrastructure is extremely high technology in almost every sense of the word.  We generate, transmit, distribute, and utilize massive amounts of energy at high efficiency through the application of fundamental, yet extremely complex laws of physics that engineers have harnessed in elegant and easily implemented ways over the past 100 years.  There is an extremely small community of engineers who understand the fundamental electromagnetic field theory, control theory, and other physics, engineering, and mathematical disciplines that are the foundation of how generators, transformers, transmission lines, breakers, vacuum switches, and other power systems equipment operate.  This technology is so hi tech and well optimized that it only appears to be low tech.

What we should be focused on is how we manage the integration of the stable, mature, highly optimized, slow changing technologies that constitute the existing grid with the new, more volatile, fast changing technologies in the communications, computing, command, and control arena.  Both classes of technology are high tech, but they have different maturity levels, technology change time constants, and roles in a business case.  In today’s world of emerging smart grid applications, we are looking for new and innovative ways to utilize the high technology embedded in our classic power systems infrastructure to support these new applications with the assistance of emerging advanced communications and computing technology.  Once we realize this, we can apply systems engineering and engineering economics discipline to develop a strategy for merging these two forms of technology to meet the technical, environmental, social, and business requirements associated with smart grid applications.  To do this, we need new business models in utility infrastructure companies be they generation, transmission, distribution, or consumer services companies.  No longer can we maintain the silo based approach of managing the business.  The engineering and business optimizations must occur across traditional organizational silos and the architecture of the systems implementing smart grid applications must use techniques that manage technology change that occurs at different rates in these systems.

The basics of an integrated, multiple technology, systems-of-systems engineering approach was first proposed by the participants and developers in EPRI’s IntelliGrid program (and its predecessor – CEIDS/IECSA) started in the early 2000’s time frame.  This approach has been slowly gaining momentum with notable large scale applications of the methodology such as Southern California Edison’s AMI and smart grid projects.  Since then, these concepts have found their way into the foundational principles of other utility projects and national efforts such as the NIST Smart Grid Roadmap and the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP).

The IEEE is playing a significant role in facilitating this change of approach through the application of the NIST Conceptual model in the IEEE Smart Grid Portal, by coordinating the work of all societies in smart grid through a formal coordination process, and via coordination of smart grid standards activity within the Power and Energy Society through its Intelligent Grid Coordinating Committee.  We have a lot of work ahead to implement new thinking, new business models, and attract new engineers with new ideas into the smart grid world, but I am optimistic that we have a good technical foundation in place to leverage current regulatory policy and political drivers and foster exponential progress in the years to come.