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In search of a smarter, healthier power grid

By Jack Smith

June 2011

Although the United States electrical power grid is more than a century old, it’s still 99.97% reliable, according to the US Dept. of Energy (DOE). However, the DOE also says that the remaining 0.03% costs Americans more than $150 billion each year - about $500 for every man, woman, and child.

Of the five major blackouts during the past 40 years, three have happened in the past 12 years. The growth in demand for electricity greatly exceeds the growth in electrical transmission, while investment in research and development is among the lowest of all industries, the DOE says. “Only 668 additional miles [1075 kilometers] of interstate [electrical] transmission have been built since 2000.”

Slow mechanical switch response times and a lack of automated analytics are among what the DOE says are causes of the increasing number of blackouts. And while we’re looking at DOE stats, here are a couple more: “In the US the average power generating station was built in the 1960s using even older technology. The average age of a substation transformer is 42, which is two years more than its expected life span.”

Smart Grid to the Rescue

A reliable, affordable, efficient, and responsive electricity grid infrastructure is long overdue. There’s no doubt that by now you’ve heard of the Smart Grid. Although most people - especially those of us who deal with electrical issues - have heard the term, there are many interpretations of what the Smart Grid is.

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Smart Grid is a planned nationwide network that uses information technology to deliver electricity efficiently, reliably, and securely. “The Smart Grid represents a leap from a one-way, analog system of disconnected power suppliers to a two-way, digital, interoperable national network.”

The Smart Grid is a collective fusion of technologies intended to leverage the benefits of the two-way flow of electricity and information using robust communications, advanced metering, distributed computing, and information technology applications. The Smart Grid will allow electricity providers to understand customer energy usage, sense system overloads, provide usage and pricing data to customers, shift demand from peak usage times, and reroute power to avoid potential outages. It will also enable increased distributed generation, and enable and accommodate alternative energy generation including solar and wind.

The DOE has identified five fundamental technologies that will drive the Smart Grid:

  • Integrated communications that connect components to an open architecture, enabling real-time information and control, which will allow every part of the grid to both talk and listen
  • Sensing and measurement technologies that will support faster and more accurate response such as remote monitoring, time-of-use pricing, and demand-side management
  • Advanced components that will apply the latest research in superconductivity, storage, power electronics, and diagnostics
  • Advanced control methods to monitor essential components that will enable rapid diagnosis and precise solutions appropriate to any event
  • Improved interfaces and decision support to amplify human decision-making, which will provide grid operators and managers visibility into their systems

The Need for Standards

The “Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007” (EISA) gave NIST “primary responsibility to coordinate development of a framework that includes protocols and model standards for information management to achieve interoperability of Smart Grid devices and systems.” The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) defines the priority issues of the standards development process coordinated by NIST.

NIST has identified 22 stakeholder groups, each of which is represented in the standards development process. These stakeholders include appliance and consumer electronics providers, municipal electric utilities, standards development organizations such as IEEE and ANSI, and state and local regulators.

NIST’s work toward developing interoperability protocols and standards is fundamental to the Smart Grid achieving the ability to monitor - and heal - itself. As part of this standards development effort, NIST awarded a $1.4 million in federal stimulus funding to Fluke Corporation to create a new calibration technology, which will become a catalyst for creating a standard for evaluating the electricity flowing through the Smart Grid. Awarded in early 2010, the grant was made possible by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The technology will enable consistent measurement of electricity from all sources including wind and solar.

Read more about Fluke developing Smart Grid technology »

The new calibration technology will be used to calibrate phasor measurement units (PMUs). A PMU measures the electricity on the grid to determine the health of the system. A phasor represents both magnitude and phase angle of the electrical sine wave. The interoperability part comes in to play because the Smart Grid will require many PMUs, which undoubtedly will be supplied by different manufacturers. The standards must ensure that these PMUs not only work nicely with each other, but that they are calibrated the same way.

To complicate this issue further, there’s no way to dynamically calibrate a PMU. Dynamic calibration means to test its accuracy under dynamic - or real-world - power conditions. This is important to the Smart Grid because PMUs identify the preconditions that lead to power interruptions.

However, over the coming months, Fluke will apply the NIST grant to the development of the calibrator, which will be based on the 6105 Electrical Power Calibrator, Fluke’s dynamic power standard. As part of the grant, Fluke will also invest $390,000 of its own money in the development effort.

I think this could legitimately be called a “smart investment.”

To comment on this or any of my “Solid Ground” columns or to suggest column topics, send me an e-mail at jacksmith.writes@gmail.com.

Until next time, keep standing on “Solid Ground.”

More Information

Smart Grid News »
Backgrounder on Smart Grid consumer electronics applications in Machine Design »
“What is the Smart Grid?” with diagram showing real-time, dynamic network of electrical demand, supply, and controls »
Whitepaper: “Measurement tools at heart of Smart Grid need calibration to ensure reliability” (.pdf) »