Unifying the smart grid

By W. Charlton Adams Jr., PE, PhD, IEEE Standards Assn., Piscataway, N.J.; and D September 1, 2009

With the unprecedented unification of power, communications, and information technology (IT) planned for the emerging smart grid, companies across typically siloed industries are adapting product roadmaps to dovetail with this tremendous federal undertaking. The IEEE P2030 work group is facilitating cooperation and visibility among power, communications, and IT silos to produce the long-term unification that is necessary to make the smart grid a success.

The term “smart grid” gives important identity to a gathering, broad-based drive to improve the United States’ electrical utility infrastructure. The nation’s electrical grid has been getting “smarter” for years. Relays have evolved from electrical-mechanical to solid-state, devices have gotten steadily more intelligent, and devices can accept a wider array of inputs than before. Similarly, the power industry has been developing monitors for transformers, and distribution automation has been popular since the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Still, key enhancements are needed. In communications and control, dynamic load balancing must be enabled. As for storage, adaptive regenerative integration should be supported. Two-way communications and power flow are needed end-to-end from generation to consumption.

U.S. electric operations historically have been localized within each of more than 3,000 separate utilities. Distribution systems in different states are typically based on proprietary technologies that have had no need to talk with one another. For the smart grid to work, standards-based communications must be enabled nationwide—even continent-wide. It’s not just a matter of enabling communications between generation and usage; communications must enable control. Marrying communications and control theory on a distributed scale is largely unexplored territory right now.

Overarching standards in power are needed as well. Historically, individual state public utility commissions have regulated their areas of the grid independently, often without sharing standards. This diverse regulatory system across and within states will complicate standards implementation unless it is rectified.

Currently, smart-grid field trials are occurring at the grid’s edge. The U.S. Dept. of Energy has allocated $4.5 billion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund “regionally unique demonstrations to verify smart-grid technology viability, quantify smart-grid costs and benefits, and validate new smart-grid business models, at a scale that can be readily adapted and replicated around the country.” However, still more experimental data and theoretical analysis is needed to create a robust, centralized base of knowledge and best practices to spur additional innovations, which makes the government’s funding of demonstration projects so valuable.

Ramifications for buildings

Opinions vary on how deep the smart grid will reach into buildings. Some say there’s no way to control which consumer appliances are used in buildings. Others say that if consumers use smart appliances to “plug and play” into the grid, services such as problem diagnosis, repair, and software updates can be deployed across the network. Where the boundaries of communications ultimately exist is a question of terrific debate.

However, even putting aside conjecture on controversies like device-to-building communications, there’s no question that the smart grid will dramatically impact the work of building owners and managers with regard to energy usage and distributed generation. Traditionally, most facilities have been only consumers of electricity. There was no good way to predict when they were going to use power, how they were going to use it, and how long they were going to need it. Once the smart grid is implemented, building owners will have significant interest in understanding energy usage within a plant in relation to its connection to the grid, especially when it comes to energy costs.

The smart grid also should provide companies with enhanced opportunities for load management. Rather than shipping thousands of megawatts into the grid and assuming all of it will get where it’s supposed to go, utilities will strive to know more about customers’ needs and to fulfill them efficiently. Factories typically create tremendous load peaks between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.; in the evenings, demand drops off substantially. Those plant managers equipped to take advantage of renewable energy sources like wind, which usually can generate more power in the evening, might be able to more cost-effectively distribute load throughout a day.

Additionally, companies that generate their own power and sell excess capacity back to utilities will have even greater savings potential with new smart-grid capabilities. This “distributed generation” is one of the most fertile areas for smart-grid technology and standards development. For companies on a wide scale to begin generating and selling electricity back to the grid, effectively running their meters backward, communications and control must be enhanced and standardized.

The concept brings up a series of interesting problems: How is available supply best managed? How will “load shifting,” the utility equivalent of charging hybrid vehicles overnight for daylight usage, impact generation, storage, and distribution of energy? There are questions surrounding billing and measurement for sub-metering. For example, how are credits to be applied per time of day and remote location? The way this information is traded must be standardized for utilities to cost-effectively engage with a broad range of customers. The ramifications of the smart grid for building managers are unavoidable and, no doubt, will ripple into standards development.

Bridging the divide

Cultural differences exist among the power, communications, and IT industries. The IEEE’s open, voluntary P2030 work group is overcoming these differences by working toward the common goal of smart-grid interoperability. Typical power working groups in the IEEE might have 20 members; IT working groups might have 10 times that many. Plus, communications and IT have been faster-changing fields; the standards-development lifecycle in power historically has been much longer.

Collaboration commenced with the first P2030 meeting in June 2009 at Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif. Task forces formed around each of the three areas, and individual task forces continue to meet while reading the literature collected from other disciplines. The next full P2030 meeting is planned for October 2009. Ultimately, P2030 will produce a consensus design guide that defines the smart grid, its elements, and functional requirements.

The P2030 group will work to tie its efforts into those of National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and other related activities in a logical and comprehensive way. NIST was charged by the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act to document the standards, protocols, information models, conformance, and tools for smart-grid interoperability. NIST and P2030 are drawing on each other’s concurrent efforts; NIST national coordinator for smart grid, George W. Arnold, was a guest speaker at the June P2030 meeting.

NIST already has identified 16 existing standards that will inform smart-grid development and on which sufficient consensus exists. Among these standards is IEEE 1547: Physical and Electrical Interconnections Between Utility and Distributed Generation . P2030 is modeled after the efforts that precipitated the IEEE 1547 standards, now adopted and implemented in 37 states.

NIST’s work will help standards-development organizations (SDOs) such as IEEE focus on areas where additional standards are needed, and coordination among the SDOs will be critical to the smart grid’s success.

Many technologies that will enable the smart grid already exist. Today’s challenge is to connect the dots and illuminate gaps where additional development is needed. The power, communications, and IT communities are being unified in an unprecedented way to make this happen. It is the integration of interdisciplinary expertise that makes the smart grid a unique engineering challenge. Power, communications, and IT engineers traditionally have not interacted much with one another, but through the IEEE P2030 work group, this is rapidly changing.

Author Information
Adams is president of the IEEE Standards Assn. DeBlasio is chair of the IEEE P2030 Work Group and principal laboratory program manager for electricity programs with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The evolving standards landscape

There are many ways to pass data, but in the current power world there are no standards for data transfer. The underlying communications enabler for smart-grid control and management figures to be Internet protocol (IP), but key information and communications questions will need to be defined in standards. Some standards that the smart grid will embrace already exist and will be used as-is; others will be modified. Certainly, gaps in the standards framework will reveal themselves eventually. Two-way communications are emerging as the first frontier for fresh development.

For example, if one company in an industrial park bought solar panels from one vendor, and the company next door installed panels from another vendor, there would likely be different vendor-specific interfaces with which a utility would have to interact. For the smart grid to operate more efficiently, these solar panels would need standardized communications protocols.

Ultimately, the smart-grid standards program will be deep and wide, addressing:

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%%POINT%% Data networking

%%POINT%% Demand response

%%POINT%% Distribution

%%POINT%% Information modeling

%%POINT%% Metering infrastructure

%%POINT%% Management of sensor technologies and other devices

%%POINT%% New scenario management

%%POINT%% Renewable energy integration

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%%POINT%% Wide-area situational awareness.

This range demands that intimate cooperation among power, communications, and IT characterizes smart-grid standards activity from the start.