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The envisioned, next-generation smart grid is an evolution that builds on decades of accumulated engineering lessons learned to make the ways that we deliver and receive electricity more intelligent, robust and reliable. But utilities, industry, policymakers and even consumers must not underestimate what is being undertaken here. The smart grid is not just a next step; it’s an interrelated range of steps—and, sometimes, leaps—that are all pointed toward the same set of revolutionary goals

It’s that potentially overwhelming magnitude of the enterprise that makes the emerging smart grid so complex and daunting. Consider the layers of change that are being carried out.

Let’s start with the shift from one-way to two-way power flow within a region of the grid. Instead of unidirectional power flowing—usually from a central-station plant to some sort of business or residential consumer—the long-range vision for the smart grid is predicated on bidirectional power flow, anywhere across the network. In this model, augmented with significantly more robust technologies for distributed generation and secure, real-time information exchange, any power user could also be a power producer. This shift also demands substantial change in regulations and business processes, as there are brand-new questions to be worked out in terms of who shoulders the costs of interconnection and how players on both ends of connections are to be equitably compensated.

Now let’s look at the proposed transition to a truly interstate and even international grid, in which power and information could be exchanged from one region to another. This, too, constitutes dramatic and multidimensional change. For example, the United States is today served by, effectively, three grids that are comprised of mostly proprietary systems that are purchased, deployed and operated more than 3,000 independent utilities, each with their own processes and legacy infrastructures. The smart grid envisions power and information flowing flexibly across existing regional jurisdictions, and that demands interoperability across equipment interfaces, data formats, content definitions, measurement units, etc.

These are historic changes that, in the end, stand to add up to ground-breaking benefits in terms of reliably satisfying unprecedented demand for power, reducing carbon footprint, keeping energy costs in check, enabling new business models and empowering consumer choice in the way power is used. The world’s smart-grid stakeholders will not only have to keep their eye on those long-term goals; for the smart grid to come about efficiently, they also will need to institute technology, business-process or regulatory changes within context of a comprehensive, long-range plan.

IEEE 2030® “IEEE Guide for Smart Grid Interoperability of Energy Technology and Information Technology Operation with the Electric Power System (EPS), End-Use Applications, and Loads,” for example, was created with just such a system-of-systems orientation. The document provides a roadmap to interconnection and interoperability, interface by interface across the grid. Utilities can use IEEE 2030 to inform their smart-grid infrastructure plans, and vendors can use it to help craft product strategies for the smart-grid market opportunity.

The basic model of electricity production, distribution and consumption has not fundamentally changed since the power industry’s inception, but the smart grid is brining new engineering principles, technological capabilities and business relationships into play. This is a journey that will ultimately have to play out over decades.

It will take leadership, the will to invest and take risk and commitment to a long-range plan to make it happen.

Image: Electrical Tower via Shutterstock