Why the “Smart Grid” may be a pipe-dream

The media has been full of stories about the coming of the “Smart Grid” for electric power, saving energy while incorporating distributed generators such as solar panels. But this vision may be a pipe-dream, if kick-start funds go to maintenance instead — the real questions, as indicated by several talks at the recent PV America event, are how fast and how widely this will happen, and whether useful innovation with be fostered or thwarted along the way.

by Bob Haavind, Editor-at-large, Photovoltaics World

The media has been full of stories about the coming of the “Smart Grid” for electric power, saving energy while incorporating distributed generators such as solar panels. More than $3B was put in the stimulus bill passed earlier this year to kick-start the transition.

But this Smart Grid vision may turn out to be a dream, suggested Howard Berke, founder and executive chairman of Konarka Technologies, Lowell, MA, at a lively PV America session in Philadelphia.

The US national grid is significantly old — never having been bombed as were many electric systems in Europe and Asia — and maintenance has been neglected, Berke explained. It would take decades to reach the Smart Grid vision being bandied about, but if the US spends most of its grid investment on maintenance of the existing infrastructure, other countries, even developing nations, may get there first, he warned.

As occasional widespread blackouts have shown, the electric grid in the US is not foolproof. “It’s not dumb, but it could be a lot smarter,” suggested Katherine Hamilton, president of the Gridwise Alliance, headquartered in Washington DC. Helping this happen is a major focus of her organization. Whereas in the past the grid grew helter-skelter across different regions, the Gridwise Alliance epitomizes current efforts to get a better coordinated, smoother transition to a smarter, much more energy-efficient system.

This process will take many years, even decades, according to Hamilton, “but a lot will happen in the next five years,” she added.

The stimulus bill provides $3.5B for the Smart Grid, including $600M for demonstration projects on a 50-50 shared basis, according to Hamilton, but the various state public utility commissions (PUCs) will need to clear the way for this work to go forward. There is also $100M for workforce development, which is important because the electric utility workforce is aging. “There are no more power engineers,” Hamilton noted, because EE students over past decades all favored electronics over power engineering.

The Gridwise Alliance, formed in 2003 in collaboration with the Department of Energy (DoE), has more than 85 members, including giants such as IBM, Google, GE, AT&T, and Cisco, but also many small companies along with universities and even investment companies. Every member, no matter how big or small, has the same voice, Hamilton claims.

“It is a consensus-building coalition, not an association,” she emphasized, allowing it to take broad-based, unbiased positions. There are various working groups, such as the Smart Grid Policy Center, which does a lot of work with the states, she added. The coalition provides education and awareness of smart grid issues, and co-sponsors reports and white papers.

Hamilton listed a number of key policy initiatives, such a standards for renewable energy and energy efficiency, responses to climate change, transmission and cyber-security. The coalition prefers various measures to be embedded into broader bills, rather than pushing for special legislation, she noted. The group also helps with regulatory work, such as the FERC smart grid docket.

Climate legislation now making its way through Congress with a carbon cap and trade system will force change in energy markets, Hamilton concluded.


The electric grid is already getting a lot smarter through a wide range of utility initiatives, according to Michael Nix, senior market strategist for PJM Interconnection LLC, a group with 550 member companies stretching from the Mid-Atlantic region to Chicago. PJM’s members serve more than 51M customers with a peak electric load of more than 145 MW, he said.

Facilities that have been added to the grid allowing functions such as the automation of distribution and substitution, energy storage, smart metering demand for load management, and market monitoring with SCADA and Phasor measurements. Network adapters allow attachments such as smart chargers or storage aggregators. Nix showed photos of long semi-trailers full of grid-scale storage units that can be hooked to the grid this way.

There will be far more energy storage of various kinds in the future, according to Nix, including flywheels, compressed air (which may come from wind), batteries, and capacitor banks with voltage regulators. The largest source of storage, he said, is still hydro — water pumped up to holding ponds at night that can be released to drive turbines at times when demand is high. Pennsylvania, for example, has a 2000 MW hydro facility, he said.

“Energy storage will be a game-changer for the Smart Grid,” added Hamilton.

Konarka’s Berke sees big opportunities for innovative storage technologies, with more portable power to add flexibility to the grid — but he feels that much innovation may be thwarted because of the fragmented approach to the Smart Grid involving state PUCs. Some regions are so far behind on maintenance that it will seem convenient to use new funds just to fix up the existing plant. And many innovative, promising technologies still require experimentation and investment, and some state PUCs may balk at this, he believes.

“If utilities try to drive new technologies, and the PUCs punish them for it, they could drive the system toward mediocrity,” Berke said.

“Obama’s got it right on the competitiveness of the US vs. developing nations,” he added. If we don’t push toward advanced grid capabilities we will fall behind other nations, many of them starting with a nearly clean slate.

As an illustration, Berke cited rising demand for power in New England, enough to call for the equivalent of one new power plant a year, but none are being built. Then he cited press accounts suggesting that $1 trillion might be spent over the next 10 years building new high power transmission lines to carry wind-generated power from the Dakotas to the Northeast. That money could be much better spent on distributed PV solar within the region, he believes, and that distributed generation would lead to a much better balanced power system.

Nix of PJM cited many solar PV projects already being initiated by electric utilities. Some are solar energy “farms,” such as a 25MW facility of PS&G, with another 10MW at other sites. The New Jersey Housing Authority is planning 43MW of solar on rooftops, and the Exelon GROWS landfill site in Pennsylvania is the fifth biggest PV facility in the US, he said. Nix also showed how 4KW solar panels are now being hung on electric poles, already providing about 40MW of unmetered power into neighborhoods.

Rising power usage can also be tempered as consumers buy more smart appliances that save energy, he said. In the future homes will have meters that will show price variations during the day, so that users can make informed choices, like running the dishwasher at 2am.

Nix said that PJM is participating in the Mid-Atlantic Grid Interactive Car Consortium (MAGICC) with the U. of Delaware and a consortium including research institutes, other universities, and auto companies as well as electric utilities. The group is preparing for an upsurge in electric cars, which probably would be recharging batteries from 1-3am, and also would need scattered electric charging stations.

“Technology is not the challenge,” agreed Berke, who suggested that IP (Internet Protocol) chips could be embedded in everything — and maybe even everybody. Such implants are already common in pet dogs, he commented. What will be needed are the will, the national policies, investment, and the ability of all elements of the Smart Grid to work smoothly together.

Putting the “D” in DC

Technology allowing DC (direct current) power to be available from wall sockets is one thing he feels will make sense in the future. “Already 40% of the base load is DC,” he said, and many more appliances are being made with DC brushless motors. Even further, lighting will be shifting to LEDs in the future, greatly increasing the DC load. Right now AC/DC converters are needed for everything that runs on DC — he said that he tallied up 128 of them for the electronics and appliances just in his own home.

“This is a huge waste of energy,” he pointed out.

An engineer in the session rose to challenge Berke’s call for transmitting power as DC rather than AC. Long-distance, high-voltage transmission requires AC, he said, and there are safety factors favoring AC for wall plugs.

Berke countered that there are places in the world with both AC and DC outlets, such as Spain and the Netherlands. It has been shown, he said, that DC can be moved safely in micronetworks, and distributed energy sources like PV panels could directly supply DC power to them.

While the session showed that the electric grid will definitely get smarter, the question is how fast and how widely this will happen, and whether useful innovation with be fostered or thwarted along the way.

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