Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Economist on Smart Grid

A former co-worker pointed out a Blog entry on The Economist website, titled "Difference Engine: Disaster waiting to Happen," and asked my opinion. I gave him a short answer in e-mail, but thought a longer answer was required.

I'm not sure who the author is, the byline just shows "N.V.". (Hmmmmmm. Envy? Of what?) I'm a bit puzzled by his (her?) unwillingness to attach a name to the posting. Regardless, it reads like a pretty reasonable assessment of the recent Southern California blackout, given that the failure analysis and determination of causes is in its opening stages. However, further thought (or, for that matter, scrolling through the Comments) identifies a number of factual inaccuracies (like the runway lights being out at the airport. Really, no backup generation?) and errors in thought.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation Hearings

I've been listening to a House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation Hearing where the topic is stated as "Empowering Consumers and Promoting Innovation through the Smart Grid."

A catchy title, but not really what the hearing is about. According to the Hearing Charter, the hearing is supposed to "...examine the status of efforts to develop open standards for smart grid technologies and drive innovation within smart grid development. This hearing will provide the Subcommittee with an update on current standards development accomplishments, as well as the actions needed to empower and protect consumer interests while promoting innovation through the growth of the smart grid.

I say supposed to, because very few of the questions I heard were about open standards, promoting innovation or empowering customers. (In the interest of fairness, I missed some of the beginning.) Most of the questions seemed to be about how much money has been spent by NIST, and how many jobs it will generate. I get the importance of being budget concious in tough economic times, but that money's already been spent. Nothing that Congress can do now will change whether that money was well or poorly spent, particularly since Congress (not NIST) dictated the mad rush to spend most of that money through the ARRA requirements.

The answers the witnesses gave were good, but the questions were wrong, and so were some of the witnesses, I'm afraid. Nothing against any of the witnesses, they're all very bright people, but they aren't the people you need to talk to, if you want to learn about innovation, or either empowering or protecting customers.

Okay, maybe I overstated it. Rik Drummond and John Caskey come close, because John is fairly directly involved on behalf of NEMA, and Rik is a pretty keen observer. Donna Nelson can tell you about what worked in Texas. "Lessons learned" in Texas may not always apply elsewhere, because Texas's grid is pretty unique.

In any case, if you want to talk about any of those topics, beating George Arnold up about the last 3 years' budget figures certainly isn't going to get you there.

If you really want to learn what's going on with standards development, innovation, or empowering consumers, or protecting consumers, talk to the people who are doing the work on standards, the people who are developing innovative products around those standards, and the people who are working on architectures for those products to plug into.

So, Representative Quayle, if you and your committee members want to see what is going on with Smart Grid, come to an industry conference, register like anybody else, and ask what people are working on. Talk to the vendors, talk to the consultants (like me ), talk to the engineers. You'll be amazed at the insightful, creative problem solving that's being done by people who have staked their personal futures on making everyone's future better.

Or, if you just want an opportunity to beat your favourite drum, feel free to spend money having hearings like this one. The rest of us will be busy making this stuff happen (and passing George Arnold a couple of aspirin.)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A "Smart" Grid or an "Instrumented" Grid?

I'm seeing a lot of discussion that indicates that there is some degree of confusion on what "Smart Grid" is.

To some, "Smart Grid" means that there is more real-time monitoring of events in the grid, with more resources (generation, storage, demand response) located within the grid, all under fairly centralized control.  Lots of data and instructions being generated and communicated, so that the grid can be managed in a way that is more efficient.  This is pretty much the way things are now, except the centralized control structure is smarter about the grid than it used to be, and has more resources to control.

That's an improvement over what is, but it isn't a "Smart Grid," because the Grid isn't any smarter.

So what is "Smart Grid?"  When does the grid become smart?

The Grid becomes Smart when it gains the ability to autonomously observe and respond to local conditions.  In short, the Grid gains intelligence.  This doesn't mean that centralized control or existing protection systems go away, but it does mean that they may have less to respond to.

It can be (and has been) argued that the grid already has this kind of intelligence.  Synchrophasors, generators, and SCADA systems already respond to things like voltage and frequency changes.

True, at the Generation and Transmission level. But where the rubber meets the road, and where the problems that these facilities have to respond to is at the distribution level.  Move intelligence closer to (and even into) the load.

Fix voltage and frequency fluctuations where they begin, at the load (which now becomes a resource, since it can respond to local conditions.)

That, is a "Smart Grid" everything else is just "SCADA on steroids", and we all know what happens on steroids...