Last month I succeeded in provoking considerable discussion around the notion that the power industry needs to wring efficiencies from the grid, not just hector customers to change their behavior – “rationing,” as one of my colleagues has put it. And I suggested that one way to do that is by deploying advanced sensors and controls – i.e., intelligence – throughout the grid on the utilities’ side of the meter. Today I want to develop that idea further.

I acknowledge a couple of things that I glossed over in my prior post before plunging ahead with today’s thesis. First, some smart meters can sense power on/off, voltage, phase angle and temperature at end points to help enable smart grid benefits. But not all meters do this, and many that do are not being fully utilized. Second, demand response programs are reducing peak demand and total energy consumption. I just don’t believe that will be enough; a smarter grid can do so much more, including better demand response techniques and results.

The industry has pretty thoroughly and effectively automated centralized generation and transmission. However, it has become clear that we need new solutions for the future beyond adding more conventional, central station generation and bulk transmission corridors. We must focus on an entirely different kind of grid.

We cannot reconfigure the grid overnight. There’s no way to make a quantum leap from a century-old paradigm to, say, the Galvin Electricity Initiative’s vision of a loosely connected collection of microgrids. But, whatever the ultimate grid will look like, a smarter grid will better enable us to cope while we make the transition.

Even if we could somehow continue to construct and operate the same kind of grid that we have had for the past 100 years, a smarter grid will substantially improve reliability, efficiency, security, power quality and customer service. The need is even greater with the new realities of the 21st century. A much smarter and more resilient grid is necessary to integrate new kinds of power sources such as wind power and distributed generation as well as supply new kinds of loads such as plug-in hybrid electric vehciles (PHEVs), electric vehicles (EVs), and customer-side-of-the-meter, automated energy management systems.

A smarter grid will have substantial benefits both in day-to-day, normal operations of the existing grid. Intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) with capabilities more like smart phones than most of today’s smart meters and phasor measurement units (PMUs) with capabilities far beyond SCADA, as well as other advanced telecom and information technologies, will enable real-time monitoring and control of the grid. This will allow utilities to, for example, optimize voltage throughout the grid, in turn reducing demand and total energy consumption, and enhance power quality for customers. The same goes for harmonics, electromagnetic interference and other power quality issues. Real-time monitoring and control of individual devices such as transformers, voltage regulators and even power lines themselves can improve performance and actually extend asset life. Real-time monitoring and control can also facilitate the avoidance of unexpected faults and failures, which is known as distribution fault anticipation.

In emergency conditions caused by “acts of God,” such as the derechos (high, straight line winds sometimes accompanying severe thunderstorms) that raked the  Eastern states at the tail end of June, advanced outage management systems (OMS), in concert with distributed sensors and controls, can substantially improve utility response and restoration of service as well as communications with customers and employees. The same goes for service interruptions caused by equipment failure, accidents or sabotage.

Obviously, weather-related emergencies like the derechos will cause the industry to analyze the costs to utilities, consumers and society of power outages in order to evaluate the feasibility of system hardening (e.g., putting power lines underground, more aggressive vegetation management, distributed backup generation, microgrids, advanced load shedding and restoration schemes). The historical data that will be available from a smarter grid will allow utility analysis to be more accurate, system planning to be more effective and system operations to be more efficient and reliable. The same goes for dealing with the physical security of the grid in the face of threats from unintentional or intentional human actions.

Finally, let’s turn to the customer who can obviously benefit from intelligence and automation on his/her side of the meter so that dynamic pricing and demand response programs do not require as much expertise, time or effort. This will go beyond smart meters and even smart thermostats to include distributed monitoring and control throughout the premises connected through home area networks. Ultimately, monitoring and control will be embedded into appliances. Continuous rapid improvement in electronics, telecommunications and information technologies make it inevitable that the customer’s side of the meter will be fully automated, and not just to control energy costs.

Can we do any less on the utilities’ side of the meter? Unfortunately, the electric utility industry is lagging in the application of advanced electronics, telecommunications and information technologies. Is it possible that others may step in to fill the gap if utilities don’t?

By adding distributed intelligence and automation to the grid and providing end-use customers with the same, we can better cope with the deficiencies of the existing infrastructure, making most efficient and effective use of current, centralized power while setting the stage for the evolution of what Bob Metcalfe has called the “Enernet.” But that’s a topic for another day.  

Image: Digital Power Meter via Shutterstock