Guest Commentary: Managing the Smart Grid for Interoperability


By Eric Van Zele, Barco

European electricity consumption will increase annually at an average of 1.4 percent until 2030, and the share of renewables in Europe’s electricity generation will double from 13 percent now to 26 percent, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Recently China also approved a major stimulus plan focused on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Ambitious plans exist in the U.S., as well, where President Barack Obama called for a doubling of the country’s renewable energy in the next three years.

“The investment we are making today will create a newer, smarter electric grid that will allow for the broader use of alternative energy,” Obama said in announcing a stimulus package worth $11 billion for smart grids.

While current electricity networks have fulfilled their function effectively, today’s passive networks must be turned into active ones if we are to integrate renewable energy sources and fully empower customers.

Today’s power grids are an aggregate of multiple power generation companies and transmission and distribution networks. Between production, transmission and distribution to end-users, multiple parties have their roles. Think of a power plant operator monitoring power generation, traders buying energy, distribution system operators monitoring the network for blackouts and electricity suppliers distributing energy to consumers. But as Obama said, the network needs to become smart. He is not the only one making this ambitious claim.


Smart Grid is the Answer


In 2005, the European Technology Platform (ETP) SmartGrids was set up to create a joint vision of European networks for 2020 and beyond. The platform includes representatives from industry, transmission and distribution system operators, research bodies and regulators. Europe’s electricity networks must be flexible (to challenges ahead), accessible (particularly for renewable energy sources), reliable (with a consistent quality of the supply chain) and economic (allowing for competition and regulation), according to ETP SmartGrids.

In the U.S., the Advanced Grid Applications Consortium (GridApp) is a group of utilities that help modernize the U.S. electrical grid. GridApp identified a similar set of key characteristics for a smart grid: self-healing, empowering and incorporating the customer, tolerant of a security attack, various generation options, fully enabling electricity markets, optimizing asset utilization and providing power quality needed by 21st century users.

Although simple at first sight, the objectives proposed by industry platforms and consortiums capture the essential complexity of any smart grid approach. Customer, distribution and production must be linked cross-state or cross-country to deliver. For example, the wind power potential of the Dakotas and Texas could provide enough for a whole nation if the power could be moved from one region to another.

How can we bring large amounts of energy from one part of the country or continent to another? When must we transfer energy across the country? When do we activate peak power plants? How can we influence consumer behavior? Smart grid is the answer to all these questions.


Integrating All Into One Virtual Grid


Smart grids also require new means of communication between consumers and power suppliers. The age-old meter is to be replaced by intelligent devices, gathering data and predicting power consumption for particular households or companies. Even more, aspects such as real-time pricing and intermittent energy sources are to be fed into the grid. It’s good that smart metering caught the interest of Google. This illustrates that the smart grid is quickly becoming one of the 21st century’s major technology advances. Google’s PowerMeter, an open platform for home energy information that launched in February, tracks historical data and forecasts future consumption—a crucial step in managing the grid.

But predicting from the end-user side is only one aspect of the smart grid. The information collected at the end-user side must be fed throughout a nation’s or continent’s grid. Imagine that 20 percent of a nation’s energy comes from solar power. If all the people in the North where it’s raining have peak demand, then the energy must be transferred from the sunny South where solar panels generate electricity. Simple, but the concept is hard to realize in practice.


Visualizing the Smart Grid


Smart grid has many definitions. It definitely adds intelligence (automation) and complexity (interoperability) to the operating side of things. The number of devices to be kept in check increases rapidly, and the need for utilities to interact with them remotely over IP networks becomes mandatory, requiring more sophisticated and interactive display walls, hence the importance of the operations control center and the often underestimated, yet crucial, role of control room systems and operators.

The more automation and intelligence, the more self-running the network is. This leads to operators having to make fewer decisions but with ever bigger impact. Operators need a system in control rooms that will allow them to speed their analysis and decision-making. A common operational picture, or situational awareness, is crucial in ensuring faster response times and better decision-making.

Video display walls are available in all sizes and technologies, including mosaic walls, projected video walls, plasma displays and the new near-seamless LCD displays. In today’s smart grid strategies, there is little room for static displays. To have full situational awareness, operators must have video screens, whether decentralized through personal (LCD) walls, centralized by a giant video wall or any hybrid option in between.

But bringing intelligence to the smart grid goes beyond utilities’ control rooms. Interoperability and collaboration among control rooms is the only way as smart grid complexity grows. In today’s IP-centric world, it is easy to link production, transmission and distribution over networks and enable operators to look beyond their micro areas. One could imagine a supercontrol room from where the power grid of a whole country or continent is managed, as we see in traffic management where police forces, fire brigades and traffic management operators are linked together and can access the same information sources in real time on their video walls.

In this story of automation and complexity, the factor for success is probably operators. They manage a grid that is becoming more complex every day. User- and IP-centric should go hand in hand when creating the smart grid. Only in this way operators will be able to respond adequately to the real-time data provided by the grid, or should I say the Matrix (reloaded).

Eric Van Zele is president and CEO of Barco NV. He is also director on the management board of the Avantha group, one of India’s leading business conglomerates. During his career he was president and CEO of Pauwels International NV in Mechelen, Belgium, and chairman of Ganz Transelektro in Budapest, Hungary.


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