Let’s Define the ‘Smart Grid’

Steven Brown, editor in chief

The smart grid was the talk of the town in Tampa, Fla., during the recently concluded DistribuTECH Conference and Exhibition. From the opening keynote session, which had “Building Tomorrow’s Smart Grid Today” as its theme, right on through three days of conference sessions, you couldn’t turn around without hearing this now ubiquitous term.

The fact that the power industry is not only talking about but actually implementing technologies to make the grid more intelligent is a great thing. There was more excitement and positive energy surrounding this year’s DistribuTECH than I’ve seen in the nine years I’ve been involved with the show. The development and implementation of smart grid technology seems to be a rallying point for an industry that’s needed a galvanizing concept for some time now.

There is, I think, a danger in the overuse of this term “smart grid,” however. As I walked from booth to booth in the DistribuTECH exhibit hall, I began to notice that nearly every supplier present had a “smart grid” device or system to offer. In many cases, I found myself at an exhibitor’s booth looking at roughly the same type of device or piece of software I’ve been seeing at DistribuTECH for years–except this year, the product was emblazoned with the new phrase du jour. I wasn’t looking at a meter; I was looking at a smart grid end-point device. I wasn’t looking at a distribution automation system, or a geographic information system, or an automated dispatch system; I was looking at a smart grid solution. I’m pretty sure there were even circuit breakers on display that boasted an IQ higher than mine.

And maybe all those technologies I’ve been seeing at DistribuTECH for nearly a decade really were smart grid solutions all along–we just didn’t know it until now. At some point, though, I think a stricter definition of “smart grid” is in order, lest the term lose all significance.

In my mind, a smart grid is one that is almost self-aware. It can perform all its daily functions and, when the need arises, repair itself without human intervention. And it can do this on a wide scale, not just within a single substation or neighborhood.

In the time leading up to DistribuTECH, I began to learn more about two systems currently in operation that I think have the potential to fit within this definition of “smart grid.” The funny thing is, neither of the companies running these systems ever used that term when describing them to me.

The systems I’m referring to–the phasor measurement systems in place at Entergy and Southern California Edison–were co-winners of our 2007 T&D Automation Project of the Year award (see pages 16-26 for more detail). Both these systems are constantly capturing an almost unfathomable amount of real-time data about the bulk power system’s operation. To date, that captured data has been used mostly for after-the-fact analysis of system disturbances. The next step is to give system operators the ability to act on the data in real-time, but when a cascading outage is coming down the pike, human reaction may not be quick enough to stem it. Both Floyd Galvan at Entergy and Mike Montoya at SCE see a day in the future when their phasor measurement systems provide an early-warning of pending disturbances and invoke automated controls to quell the disturbance or, at least, bring the system back together after the disturbance–all without operator interference. We’re not talking about localized distribution automation systems here; we’re talking about systems that can potentially oversee the entire Eastern or Western Interconnection.

That’s what I call smart.

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