Will Smart Grid Take Over the World?


By Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor

In 1954, Japanese writer and film director Ishiro Honda created a monster–a popular monster, perhaps the most popular in pop culture history. His creation, Godzilla, crashed through 28 films, along with cartoon series, comic books, novels, toys and other memorabilia.

Godzilla may have destroyed Tokyo in 1954, but he spawned an entire industry–a profitable industry–based on a fictitious technology nightmare. (Godzilla was created by atomic testing.) By the fifth movie, however, Godzilla had made a turn from villain to hero, fighting Ghidorah, the three-headed monster. Suddenly, the nightmare switched to a protector fantasy.

The electric T&D industry is attempting a similar Godzilla flip-flop: Taking a huge, hulking, archaic electricity T&D system and creating from that a massive, self-healing smart grid overnight (a few decades in industry terms).

But can the electric utility industry’s Godzilla change? Can it convert so quickly? In the end, will smart grids take over the world or be destroyed by another trend on the horizon? If Godzilla could conquer pop culture in 1954, can smart grids conquer the electric utility industry’s massive power systems in 2009 and beyond?


History’s Mysteries


According to legend, as well as Wikipedia, Austin Energy CIO Andres Carvallo came up with the term “smart grid” in 2007 at an industry conference. (Austin Energy representatives confirmed via e-mail in August that Carvallo did, indeed, come up with that name.) Austin Energy and other utilities like Enel in Italy, however, were hard at work on the concept before 2007.

Is the smart grid an update of the old system–a smarter, faster, rebuilt version of its clunky T&D predecessor? Or is it a new, holistic vision, as EPRI discussed in a report this year that looks at the grid from fuel to light switch? Is it an addition of in-home energy displays that change mood colors when a demand response event is on the horizon like PGE’s energy orb program? (See program details on the Net: http:// pge.com/drorbs/.)

The smart grid can be all or none of those things. It can be a sliver or the whole shebang. Like Godzilla, it can be hero, villain or supporting player. It all depends on who you ask.

POWERGRID International asked several industry insiders to discuss the smart grid: its potential, its definition and the roadmap that needs to be drawn from today to smart grid’s future.

Ken Oshman, Echelon Corp.’s chairman and CEO, said we need to start at the beginning: Stop thinking about the smart grid as one thing. It’s not a single entity or a cohesive whole. It’s basically everything.

“You have to get over the notion that the smart grid is a single, utility owned thing that starts and ends with a communicating meter,” he said. “It isn’t and never has been.”

For Oshman, the smart grid is similar to EPRI’s holistic vision. (Editor’s note: For more information on EPRI’s holistic vision, see the article series in the notes section of the May, June, July and August 2009 issues.) The smart grid includes power generation and runs through to streetlights, appliances and efficiency tech embedded in buildings and homes.

“Everything that draws electric power within them will be part of the smart grid one day,” he said. “There is absolutely no technological reason why all of these things should not respond to the grid to save energy.”


The Top Three


POWERGRID International asked the experts to provide three reasons that smart grid will be the wave of the T&D future. Reliability, affordability and efficiency were among the top answers. David Mohler, Duke Energy’s CTO, listed all three.

“The 20th century charter for utilities was to provide power cheap and across the board,” Mohler said. “In the U.S., we did that. It’s done. Now, we want power that’s reliable, affordable and efficient. Now, we want more. We want renewables and PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) and less carbon. We require a grid configured differently with more intelligence.

“Sadly, Thomas Edison would recognize everything we’re doing on the grid today. It’s his 1870’s vision channeled through 1950’s technology. Our system today is the opposite of a smart grid. It’s dumb.”

Mohler believes the key definition of smart grid is infrastructure to build energy-efficient communities. For Mohler and Duke, the smart grid is about enabling. It’s about creating a cleaner, leaner, greener world. Oshman agrees but thinks more about the present and how to use efficiency measures to cut demand.

“The fact is we’re decades away from truly off-setting our need for coal-powered electricity, and demand will only continue to outgrow supply,” Oshman said. “Energy efficiency, accomplished through innovative energy management strategies, is the best, fastest and cheapest way to lower electricity cost and overall demand. The only way to really make this happen, however, is with smart control networks and smart devices.”

While Mohler envisions a smart grid that puts tech across the board to make efficiency easier for consumers, Oshman’s grid puts tech into homes, allowing consumers to relieve the burden on a taxed industry. One moves from top down, the other from the end backwards. Either or both are possible for the smart grid because currently everyone is still trying to figure out the details.

Mohler will be the first to admit that there might be some hype mixed in with the smart grid potential. He said that some utilities say they are building a smart grid when they’re really just building out meter reading. Other experts said that vendors sometimes attach the smart grid label to technology that has been around for years, to the point of stretching the connection paper thin.

Overall, the experts agreed that the smart grid is possible, necessary and that the industry will figure it out. Mohler was the most direct about it.

“The smart grid will happen,” Mohler said. “No matter what some people may think, it will happen.”

Greg Scheu, ABB’s senior vice president and head of its power products division in North America, agrees with Mohler on reliability as a major factor and with Oshman on consumers as a major contender in the smart grid game. But one of his top smart grid factors is accommodating renewables, as mandated by EU initiatives, Obama policies and state portfolio standards.

“We’re going to need a smarter grid and a smarter long-distance transmission system across state lines if we realistically hope to integrate large amounts of wind, solar and other renewable sources,” Scheu said. “This is particularly true with residential and other distributed generation, which is being driven by climate change.”

Based on these experts’ opinions, a smart grid isn’t one thing but many things–intelligent T&D things–being driven by industry trends in efficiency and reliability, consumer desires and renewables mandates.


X Marks the Spot


Whether industry executives dream about adding renewables like Scheu, developing a system from the top down like Mohler, or from the end backward like Oshman, the industry needs details to create a smart grid that’s going to make the United States more efficient.

Mohler’s map is simple: Build out the intelligent network and add intelligent equipment. He noted that the devil’s in the details here. The industry is still experimenting with what works best and what people really want, but his vision is more organic: Build out and up and adjust as the industry learns and grows, he said.

Duke’s been doing that with its Utility of the Future program since 2004. During the next five years, it plans to spend more than $1 billion on a smart grid that will include open architecture and IP protocols, as well as a number of pilot programs.

ABB’s Scheu sides with Mohler’s organic vision, although he also sees a need for greater coordinated planning among utilities.

“The smart grid will evolve as technologies are deployed–unfortunately, some of it through trial and error,” Scheu said.

Oshman’s smart grid vision has four specific suggestions:

1. Focus on the core end result and mandate that result. (For instance, reduce energy 10 percent over the next three years by responding to the conditions on the grid.)
2. Do not mandate technology. The market will decide which technologies win. The winning technologies will allow the industry to achieve its goal.
3. Remove regulations that deter power generators from saving energy. Competition, technical innovation and creative business models will take care of the rest.
4. Create regulations that pay utilities to sell less energy.



Consumer Power


No matter what the road map to a smart grid system eventually looks like, the experts agree that the smart grid will be pushed through by consumers, who want what they want when they want it–rather like Godzilla.

The average consumer cares about his monthly bill, but really doesn’t want to fool with it too much, Mohler said. But if you show consumers a problem, most will act. A recent Duke Energy pilot program revealed to one consumer that his refrigerator was costing him nearly $30 a month. That bothered him because the average cost to operate a new fridge is $40 a year. The customer bought a replacement. Without the pilot program, he wouldn’t have known about his power issues. He would have known only that his bill was high.

“Regulators think they can give consumers information on cost and consumers will change their behavior, Mohler said. “That’s just not true. This needs to be a back-of-the-brain bit of technology. No one wants to remember to get up at three in the morning to turn on the dryer.”

Consumers want savings, however, and they want to set parameters for personal balance between comfort and savings, which is where end-user smart grid technologies come into play. Those technologies talk to meters, substations and utilities. Consumer empowerment will make smart grid a necessity rather than a luxury; the way good technology made the cell phone a necessity for nearly every consumer.

“We’re at the leading edge of smart grid today,” ABB’s Scheu said. “Eventually, even Grandma is going to want more control over her energy usage so she can reduce her costs,” he said. “Smart grid is the only way to give Grandma what she really wants.”

Mohler has a vision of what he sees on Grandma’s wish list. He thinks PHEVs will be the one killer smart grid application.

The next time you’re thinking too much about work, the smart grid and what it means to the industry and the consumer, rent “Godzilla vs. Mothra” for inspiration. Perhaps as a companion and homage to Mohler’s idea of that one killer smart grid app, you should also pick up “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Godzilla came back to life 28 times in his cinematic history, and it’s entirely possible, according to Mohler, that smart grid technology will spawn a similar resurrection with the rise of PHEVs.

This is part one of a two-part series on smart grids. Next month’s issue will include insight from Accenture’s smart grid chief architect Jeffrey Taft and a host of KEMA executives, including Hugo van Nispen, president and managing director. Plus, we talk to the father of the smart grid term, Andres Carvallo with Austin Energy.

Online exclusive: Read the complete interview with Ken Oshman online. On the Net: http://power-grid.com


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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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