Commentary: Secretary Chu, Sputnik moments, growing up a little, and memories of the Fonz

By Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor

In late November, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the National Press Club that we are immersed in a “Sputnik moment.”

What does that mean? Chu’s saying we are chasing China and other nations in clean technology, and this chase should clue us in that we need to buckle down and regain our technology foothold. It’s a wake-up-or-shut-up moment.

But, I believe we are not in such a fight-or-flight spot, a do-or-die situation. Instead, it feels more like a jump-the-shark moment.

To explain Chu’s scientific Sputnik reference, let’s go back to 1957 when Russia sent the sleeping giant America a wake-up-or-shut-up moment by launching the first Earth-orbiting, manmade satellite. U.S. citizens who saw their country as the tech powerhouse in those postwar glory days were forced to alter those visions when it became obvious to the world that the Russians were ahead in this game. It was hard to ignore the shiny metal sphere circling the world. Sputnik 1’s launch created the Space Age and solidified the USSR as our biggest Cold War opponent. We took that as a call to a figurative tech war, and we met that call.

Now Chu is telling us China is our newest opponent, that it and other leaps-ahead clean and green industrial countries will be on the opposite side of what might be a green war.

“When it comes to innovation, Americans don’t take a back seat to anyone, and we certainly won’t start now,” Chu said in November. “From wind power to nuclear reactors to high-speed rail, China and other countries are moving aggressively to capture the lead. Given that challenge, and given the enormous economic opportunities in clean energy, it’s time for America to do what we do best: Innovate. As President Obama has said, we should not, cannot and will not play for second place.”

Chu was conservative when he said we’re in a “Sputnik moment.” He specifically pointed out China’s leaps in high-voltage transmission, advanced coal tech, nuclear power and renewables. In his Sputnik-moment world, the United States needs to try a little harder to be back on top.

Regarding all those clean tech issues and numerous EU member states’ pilot projects and funding, in the areas of green tech, the United States is getting closer to a jump-the-shark moment.

Think about the Fonz and and watching classic TV favorite “Happy Days.” It was great family entertainment, often thoughtful and well-written. But all good things wind down if they don’t innovate and change. Rather than innovate and change, the Fonz and “Happy Days” chose a storyline in which Henry Winkler’s leather-jacketed–and board shorts-sporting–character climbed onto water skis and jumped over a shark to prove his manliness.

It proved to many viewers that “Happy Days” had nothing left to offer in storylines and was headed downhill. And so, “jumping the shark” became a Hollywood idiom for TV shows that last past their primes.

Has the concept of a U.S. tech powerhouse jumped the shark? Has the United States lasted past its “We’re No. 1″ prime? For years countries traditionally viewed as behind in technology have assessed their situations, changed and leapt ahead of the U.S. in niche areas. (Think of India’s large-and-in-charge acceptance of IEC 61850 as one example specific to the industry.)

Chu’s desire to push the U.S. button of competitiveness to re-energize the tech community is misguided and off the mark. There’s a lot of good work being done in U.S. clean tech areas. What’s lacking is not the technology or thought leadership. It could be regulatory issues: lack of economic incentives, an inability to get states to work together on larger goals, issues with private and public access, red tape.

Declaring we’re having a Sputnik moment to inspire us to get behind better technology development is odd when that technology is already at hand (if not here, then in Germany or China). Let’s accept that we’ve jumped the shark on being the No. 1 worldwide tech head forever and think more about the best way forward. Let’s think about collaboration and cooperation and less about proving our U.S. technology manliness.

Even Henry Winkler moved on, expanding into production and directing his own shows, growing up and worrying less about that leather-jacketed image.

And let’s not start a green war where we work to come out on top again and line up opponents to knock down (or jump over or leap past) to make us shinier and newer with a $6 million makeover. Instead, let’s all say, “Winning isn’t the issue. We don’t need to ignite another 50-year international juggernaut.”

Instead, can we be adults and give China a quick phone call? Can we sit down for coffee with President Hu Jintao and ask, “How are those high-voltage projects going? What advice would you have for us to implement similar changes?”

Can we move this more global team forward together rather than re-establishing competitive lines set to mimic the problematic arc of the American-Russian space age?

It’s OK to have jumped the shark. It’s OK to be out-Sputniked by China. It’s OK to leave old animosities and fears and ethnocentric bubbles in the dust with our Cold War history and instead move forward to a clean tech future that’s more inclusive.

And, as every good American parent tells his child, it’s OK to ask for help and a little advice when you need it.

E-mail Kathleen Davis at to discuss this commentary or other topics in this issue. POWERGRID International may use your e-mail in upcoming Letters to the Editor.

Kenya to Up Number of Grid Connections

In late 2010, the World Bank launched the Kenya Electricity Expansion Project. The project seeks to bolster the Kenyan government’s goal of connecting 1.5 million people and businesses to the electricity grid by 2015.

In urban slums such as Kibera in Nairobi, the project will support efforts of the government and Kenya Power and Lighting Co. (KPLC) to improve supply. During the project’s first year, new distribution lines will enhance agricultural productivity in communities along the Kenyan coast, in Nyanza and the Rift Valley, as well as in eastern and western Kenya.

“We’ve accelerated electricity connections countrywide, adding 220,000 customers a year up from 60,000 customers four years ago,” said Joseph Njoroge, managing director and chief executive of the KPLC, in the World Bank report. “This has been achieved through innovative and attractive schemes encouraging Kenyans to connect to the national grid.”

Despite making considerable strides during the past decade, access to electricity in Kenya remains extremely low compared with other African economies of similar size with the current rate of households with a connection to the national power grid at just more than 23 percent, according to the World Bank.

The Kenyan government has set a goal of 40 percent household access by 2020.

EYE ON EUROPE : Puzzle Pieces


By Richard Schomberg, IEC

Building a smart grid from scratch is one of the most complex things undertaken by mankind. But this challenge is even more complex when it has to be built atop existing legacy assets.

Most legacy electricity networks are a patchwork of analog and digitalized equipment. Software has been added here and there, and the results are highly complex systems that must evolve to deliver the awaited smart grid benefits. Standards promise to be one of the keys, but only experts can identify those that apply directly to a given smart grid area.

Most of the standards applicable to the smart grid were not written with a view to making them fit together. Sometimes elements of several standards focus on the same part of the grid but address it from different angles. Looking at one standard and its description will not tell you if it complements another.

Those trying to harness the power of standards need an in-depth knowledge of power systems and must invest many hours wading through thousands of pages of standards documents to identify the pieces that possibly could complement each other in a given part of the grid. And when new functionalities must be added to existing systems, this process must be repeated again and again for each new project. There have been many unsuccessful attempts to visualize the interaction of smart grid standards. The issue is complex and multidimensional.

Big corporations have the financial means to pay for this work, while smaller organizations might be left out or tempted to match standards in a superficial manner. Because the process is manual, individual interpretations lead to different conclusions and outcomes. That is about to change. 

Let’s Take One Step Back in History 

During the past decade, International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) work has been instrumental in modeling and building smart grids, long before the term smart grid was coined. In 2006, smart grid experts in the IEC developed a method based on system engineering and real-life experience that makes it possible to define smart grid needs independently of any technology and device solution. This method is recognized universally as the right approach to building interoperable smart grids, and it offers many real-life examples.

More than 100 IEC standards have been identified for the smart grid, and many more are in evaluation. The IEC provides most technical standards needed to build a smart grid. The full list can be found on the IEC website, A partial proof of this is that the first five core standards to be adopted for the U.S. smart grid are all IEC standards. They also are referenced in all recently published road maps in China, Germany, Japan, Korea and the European Union.

The IEC is deeply involved in all major smart grid projects around the world, and IEC standards play an important role in all of them.

The IEC has been able to develop an online expertise system capable of positioning any given standard in relation to its role within the smart grid and showing possible interactions with other standards. The IEC tool makes possible the extraction of commonalities and differences. This promises to become an important resource for any professional working in the smart grid arena. He or she will be able to identify all the standards that apply to a given location in the grid in seconds.

For example, if a cybersecurity expert is interested only in standards that deal with cybersecurity, the mapping solution can extract this information almost instantly without his having to read thousands of pages. The same holds true for a utility that wishes to identify all the standards relating to an electric meter or distribution automation equipment connected to a given substation. 

New Tools for a New Grid 

The IEC is planning to launch the online tool at the beginning of 2011.

The tool’s first version will contain all the relevant IEC standards and significantly will facilitate navigation, making standards much easier to use. The IEC would like the second version to include all available smart grid standards from other standard development organizations (SDOs) and invites interested SDOs to get in touch.

Another benefit of this solution will be easier identification of gaps and overlaps and rational standards comparison. The IEC is intending to fast-track all relevant standards of other SDOs and bring them into the international consensus-based process. This will allow the construction and better management of the total portfolio of smart grid standards, provide built-in interoperability on a global scale and boost innovation.

This solution is intended to help anyone who upgrading or building smart grids and developing relevant technology to access at once all the applicable standards. The aim is to provide a one-stop gateway where industry easily can find and position all smart grid standards.

The IEC is a not-for-profit organization that brings together 162 countries and offers a global platform to some 10 000 experts from industry, governments and user groups. These experts sit together, define and agree on the rules, specifications, measurement methodologies and testing requirements that are needed to do business in the global market. They develop standards that cover all aspects of safety, interoperability, efficiency, electromagnetic compatibility and environmental impact.

The IEC’s mission is to make electrotechnology work for industries and countries worldwide. Beyond the smart grid, the IEC also is involved deeply in improving the efficiency, safety and performance of all devices and systems that contain electronics and generate, use, distribute or store electricity.

IEC international standards and IEC conformity assessment systems enable companies to access more markets faster and at lower cost. They also stimulate more focused and cost-effective innovation and technology adoption.

During the past two years, the IEC has analyzed the whole energy chain, identifying areas that offer the highest short- and medium-term efficiency improvements and what is needed to get there. Those findings are summarized in a recently published, free white paper available at

Richard Schomberg is the chairman of the smart grid strategy group with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in charge of system aspects for energy delivery. He is also vice president of innovation at the EDF Group.

U.S. ISOs, RTOs Report Performance Metrics

The independent system operators (ISOs) and regional transmission organizations (RTOs) regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) submitted to FERC a metrics report providing extensive data on grid operations and power markets in their regions.

The California ISO Corp., ISO New England Inc. (ISO-NE), Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator Inc. (Midwest ISO), New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), PJM Interconnection LLC (PJM) and Southwest Power Pool Inc. (SPP) compiled the report as part of FERC’s efforts to develop standardized measures to track the performance of grid operations and power markets in ISOs, RTOs and other regions of the nation.

Prepared at FERC’s request, the report includes more than 50 metrics providing information on electric system reliability, wholesale electricity market benefits and the organizational effectiveness of the six ISOs and RTOs under FERC jurisdiction.

“The wide array of information provided by the report illustrates the transparency of ISO-RTO operations and markets,” said Stephen G. Whitley, NYISO president and CEO and ISO/RTO Council chairman. “Overall, the report shows that ISOs-RTOs are operating the grid reliably, administering markets openly and efficiently, advancing public policy energy objectives and enabling demand response and energy efficiency. In New York, the metrics will add to our collaborative efforts with stakeholders to continuously measure and enhance the NYISO’s performance.”

Performance metrics highlighted in the report include $9.5 billion in transmission expansion approved by the ISO, much of which is constructed, said Yakout Mansour, California ISO president and CEO.

“More good news shows 18,000 megawatts of new generation was built in the last decade,” Mansour said. “Renewable integration is facilitated by our new market system, which also has resulted in greater market liquidity, competitive prices and enhanced reliability.”

ISO-NE President and CEO Gordon van Welie said it is pleased to be a part of the ISO/RTO Metrics Report.

“For more than 13 years, ISO New England has consistently delivered value to New England, and we have made significant progress in developing much needed infrastructure in the region,” Welie said. “The metrics discussed in the report provide valuable insight into the progress that we have made in markets development, operations and regional system planning.”

The report complements Midwest ISO’s development, said John Bear, president and CEO of the Midwest ISO.

“Since the Midwest energy markets began in 2005, we have continued to collaborate with our stakeholders to create and enhance our meaningful and effective set of tools that measure the value the Midwest ISO provides to them and their customers,” he said.

Terry Boston, PJM Interconnection president and CEO, said the 16-month collaboration demonstrates a commitment to transparency in ISO-RTO operations. It also allows the public to see how the industry provides cost-effective to services to more than 170 million customers in ISO and RTO regions, he said.

Nick Brown, SPP president and CEO, said it was the first time the organizations have worked together to compile such a variety of data.

“This report, which highlights SPP’s recent success in implementing several innovative cost allocation initiatives, will help FERC and other stakeholders better understand the individual and collective benefits of ISOs and RTOs,” Brown said.

The report notes that its data should be viewed in context, given significant differences in the geographic territories served by ISOs and RTOs, regional reliability requirements developed for each system, unique components of market designs, the composition of available power resources and other variables.

The report is intended to complement other mechanisms in place to measure ISO/RTO performance, including other detailed information annually submitted to FERC, the respective State of the Market reports for each ISO/RTO, FERC’s annual State of the Market Report, and reporting measures developed by the individual ISO/RTOs.

A copy of the complete document, “2010 ISO/RTO Metrics Report,” is available for download from the ISO/RTO Council website,

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