What decreased R&D funding means for the Smart Grid

With industries focused on efficiency, and governments emphasizing austerity, where will the funding come from for research and development (R&D), which drives systems-level standards innovation?


Dick DeBlasio. Courtesy: IEEEThe electricity demands of today are challenging the capabilities of power grids around the world, and future requirements stand to be even greater. Global standards development and adoption is essential in cost-effectively creating a more flexible, intelligent, and robust facility for delivering electricity. But creating those standards requires R&D funding, and in the U.S., it appears to be unclear from where that investment is going to come.

There is a successful history of government and industry working together in these areas. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), for example, has been entrenched in research, testing, and standards development for distributed, renewable energy sources since 1979. It was with support from NREL—as charged by the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability—that two breakthrough, systems-level standards of particular relevance to building engineers were created:

In both of these cases, government and industry collaboration was essential in standards development, which has moved grid modernization forward, innovation in the ways that buildings interact with power, interconnection and interoperability education, and technology transfer in the evolution of the electricity grid. During the development of IEEE 1547, for example, industries matched multiple times over each dollar of government investment with its own funding to send professionals to meetings to work on the standard.

Much more standards work—particularly at the architectural, systems level—needs to be done, but, so far, the bulk of U.S. R&D investment has been concentrated in either inventing or demonstrating disparate technological elements of the emerging Smart Grid. There is no question this funding has been worthwhile, as the innovations for which it is paying will prove necessary pieces in the next.

But the puzzle pieces must fit together seamlessly to form the complete picture, if the Smart Grid’s most compelling long-term benefits—significant reduction in environmental impact, energy security for generations, greater consumer empowerment, lowered long-term costs for building operators and utilities alike, creation of new markets, etc.—are to be realized. And systems-level standards will help the Smart Grid’s pieces fit together.

Without those architectural standards, on the other hand, the development and deployment costs of the Smart Grid over decades could turn out to be exponentially higher than they would be with them. Grid stability, reliability and safety could be put into jeopardy without assurance that an innovation at one end of the grid will work with a system at the other. Furthermore, the United States and other countries with decentralized systems of utilities figure to lose influence with the global power industry, as large-scale manufacturers of Smart Grid technologies target markets such as China where the systems approach to grid modernization is in play.

Every standard that is written demands at least some R&D investment—and sometimes quite a bit of R&D investment. In the global marketplace, government and industry work proactively and collaboratively to ensure the investments made are the ones that will define how the Smart Grid takes shape around the world.

In addition to his role as chair of IEEE SCC21 Standards Coordinating Committee on Fuel Cells, Photovoltaics, Dispersed Generation, and Energy Storage, which sponsors and leads the family of standards for IEEE 1547 and IEEE 2030, Dick DeBlasio is a member of the IEEE Standards Board and past member of the IEEE Standards Association Board of Governors and chief engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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