Friday, 3 February 2012

Cost of Smart Meter FUD Established in California

It is well established through many examples that fear, uncertainty, doubt (FUD) and ignorance has a real cost in terms of time, money, relationships, and other aspects of everyday life.  One great example that society dealt with for years was the idea that using seat belts would cause you greater injury than not using them. Thousands of people died during the period that this FUD was being spread. While the current FUD on smart metering does not rise to this level, it is based on the same kind of “scientific” foundation as the seat belt myths. The recent compromise decision by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) regarding PG&E's opt out program establishes a very specific cost for Smart Meter FUD - $75 up front and $10 a month.

The good news about this decision is that it puts the direct cost of FUD and ignorance directly on those who could otherwise mitigate it.  They have the option to learn and overcome their FUD at any time.  It still seems unfortunate that some will spend more time, money and energy complaining about a situation they don't understand rather than taking the time to learn about it from authoritative sources. This is the same kind of enforcement that seat belt laws and tickets were enacted to address.

We can't just blame those who are expressing Smart Meter FUD however.  Our industry does have a responsibility to proactively make authoritative information on new technology readily available to the consumers who will use it and in an easy to understand form.  Information on new technology needs to clearly articulate the fundamentals of the technology itself, how it compares to older technology, how the technology compares to similar things in other industries, places or situations, what the tangible and intangible benefits are, what the downside is and how those negatives relate to other situations we find ourselves in on a regular basic.  None of the key players with the requisite knowledge in our industry have done a good job in this arena  - regulators, utilities, vendors, consultants, etc. - let alone in the education system.

Another issue is related to how we respond to those who do exhibit FUD.  How far do we go allowing a problem to persist that is readily solved by education and instead coddle those who express FUD?  That is a societal question but my common sense tells me that we should avoid coddling as much as possible.   Here are some questions I came up with to explore this aspect:
  1. Can I opt out of receiving public water because I hear it might contain small but legal amounts of carcinogenic substances and instead require the water company to deliver bottled water to my home?
  2. Can I demand that cell phone makers provide an analog rotary dial on cell phones because I believe that pressing digital buttons causes arthritis (I read it on the Internet so it must be true)?
  3. Can I opt out of being exposed to television signals and choose to have the entertainers come to my house and perform in person?
  4. Can I opt out of receiving my phone calls by cellular signal and choose to have a long wire run to my mobile phone with a crew following me everywhere with a spool of wire?
  5. Can I opt out of breathing public California air because it sometimes looks or smells bad?  The option is to mandate the creation of a new California Department of Air Supply to deliver canned air to my home.  It would of course be a precisely regulated mix of oxygen/nitrogen with elaborate testing, certification, and penalties for non-compliance - and a department to run it - and a new tax to pay for that!
  6. Can I opt out of stopping at traffic lights because I hear the color red might cause a seizure or require that stop lights I might be near use orange instead of red?

I hope regulators don't go too far in forcing regulated entities to coddle consumers who have a fear of technology change.  The business case tells us that it may be cheaper to coddle a few than fight it on principle.  This may be a slippery slope however and doesn't bode well for the prospects of instead focusing on improving education in science and technology to not only make it easier to live in an increasingly technology driven world but to actually contribute to advancing technology forward for the betterment of us all.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Smart Grid Workforce Strategy

There are many issues surrounding preparing the workforce to support smart grid application deployment.   One of those issues is related to the changing needs of the field workforce to support the merger of electrical apparatus infrastructure with communications infrastructure.  This includes new training for lineman as well as finding a role for meter readers in those utility territories where automated meter reading is being deployed.  I have seen a lot of discussion around these issues and there are many non degree education programs sprouting up that focus on this need (see the list at  In this post, I want to focus more on the changing requirements for electric power engineer skills in a smart grid world.

Traditionally, engineering schools that have an electric power concentration option have focused on a standardized set of basic electric power engineering disciplines and the supporting mathematics.  Typical topics include basic steady state electric power theory, transmission line characteristics, symmetrical components, load flow, short circuit and stability analysis, power generation and control, transient analysis, electromagnetic fields, power electronics and several others.   We have been turning out electric power engineers with these core disciplines for decades.  Recently there has been a trend in universities to encourage engineers to go beyond the masters program and seek a doctorate in a narrow discipline of electric power engineering.   From my point of view as an employer of electric power engineers, this has resulted in an ever decreasing pool of engineers with broad interest that normally come out of a masters level program.  Unfortunately, this is exactly the type of engineer we need to address the extreme breadth of engineering challenges related to grid modernization.  For example, I can't really use an engineer that has spent the past 2-3 years in a PhD program drilling down into the nuances of how to optimize one specific issue related to a snubber circuit in a power electronic front end for a specific type of power electronic inverter.

So what skills do we really need in a smart grid engineer?  I would argue that to answer that question we look at the various disciplines that are implied in various definitions of the smart grid.  The starting point I use is the list of smart grid functions in the US EISA 2007 legislation:

  • Ability to store, send and receive digital information through a combination of devices
  • Ability to do same to or from a computer or control device
  • Ability to measure and monitor as a function of time of day, power quality, source and type of generation, etc
  • Ability to sense disruptions in power flows and communicate on such instantaneously
  • Ability to detect, respond to, recover, etc relative to security threats
  • Ability of appliances and equipment to respond without human intervention
  • Ability to use digital information for grid operations that were previously electromechanical or manual
  • Ability to use digital controls to manage demand, congestion, and provide ancillary services

These functions are not unique to the US definition of smart grid - they are consistent with applications that define grid modernization and hence the smart grid around the world.  These functions do imply disciplines that are not normally found in the electric power engineering workforce - some of which I highlighted in the list above.  If I summarize these into categories of skills for a Smart Grid Engineer, I come up with 8 areas of concentration:

  • Basic electrical and electric power engineering
  • Communications
  • Distributed Computing / Intelligence / Complex Systems
  • Security
  • Systems of Systems Engineering
  • Enterprise Architecture
  • Business, Economics, and Regulation
  • Enhanced People Skills

I have this advice for electric power engineering educators - develop in your students a holistic view and understanding of the power system; build a solid foundation in power systems behavior in steady state and transient domains; collaborate with other university departments including CompSci, systems, electronics, and business management; avoid creating "siloed" professionals; apply systems engineering discipline everywhere; keep your eyes open - don't reinvent - be aware of and utilize industry resources; listen carefully to overall industry needs - not just the noisiest or the biggest funder.  For engineering students and current engineering practitioners I would suggest: thinking globally in systems of systems terms - systems engineering disciple is critical to your success; everything matters - thoroughly understand the power system, thoroughly discover and understand the system requirements, and evaluate device and system interactions; manage technology change; appreciate and understand the business case; build in metrics in your designs that can be captured to monitor technical and business performance; keep your eyes open - don't reinvent - collaborate instead; and engage in continuous learning and self improvement.

A longer version of this post is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of Power Grid International.