The EPRI Interview on a Holistic Vision

In a new EPRI report that just hit stands last month, the research giant touts a “holistic” approach to power—one that doesn’t separate generation from distribution or cut the creation of power from its flow to the light switch, one that doesn’t parcel the bytes and pieces of this industry into separate, tasty tidbits.

Given that most every item and entity in the power industry is categorized, separated, compartmentalized and labeled, the “Vision for a Holistic Power Supply and Delivery Chain” report envisions a drastic 180-turn from the way the power system is laid out under the choppy interconnected morsels of the status quo.

And, while it makes for interesting bedside reading, questions remain whether such a vision is practical and feasible—economically, industrially or even socially. To get answers to those questions, Utility Automation and Engineering T&D contacted Stephen Lee, EPRI project manager and author of that holistic vision. He revealed in-depth insight on where the idea came from, where the idea is headed and whether we, as an industry, are progressive enough—or, perhaps, tough enough—to follow the lead.

The following are the direct questions and answers used to craft part one of the multi-part article series on the report. See the May issue of UAE, notes section for the article.


What prompted you to craft the ‘holistic vision’?
Lee: I joined EPRI in 1998. In 1999, I became the area manager of grid operations and planning. In order to set the long term roadmap of research for this area, I organized a focus group meeting in June 1999 among our utility advisors to brainstorm about the isses and solutions for North American grid operations (2000-2005). This was followed by another focus group in February 2000 to lay out the issues and solutions for North American grid planning (2000-2005).

Over the years at EPRI, I have continued to identify critical challenges to the power industry and written white papers. I have also been an in-house technical resource about the research needs in grid operations and planning in the context of EPRI’s Intelligrid program. Last year, when interests in smart grid started to spread beyond the work on developing communication standards, the smart metering, demand response and integration at the distribution network level, I felt it was time to revisit the issues and solutions in the grid operations and planning area, in light of the rising interests in the real meaning of a smart grid. I contracted with Steve Hoffman, who helped me write the two previous focus group reports, to interview me and worked with me to draft this vision document. As it turned out, I was also actively involved with the North American Synchro-Phasor Initiative (NASPI) in the research and the operation task teams, and EPRI was going to host the NASPI workgroup meeting in our Charlotte office. So I was able to use my EPRI Situational Awareness Task Force Meeting to conduct a half-day brainstorming session and opened the meeting to attendees of the NASPI meeting. This provided the occasion to present the vision document and to fill in some of the details about the need for future research and their relative priorities.

I should comment on the term “holistic.” I used this term for a couple of years now to describe the need for a wholeness approach to the planning and operation of the now-unbundled electric power industry. Since 1998, the previously well-accepted practice of IRP (Integrated Resource Planning) had stopped because of the restructuring of the power industry into separately-owned generation, transmission and distribution companies. Generation and transmission planning in areas where markets were established under ISOs or RTOs became separated. Generation investments were made to maximize profits. Transmission investments practically came to a halt because of a lack of financial incentives. There was no long term planning which addressed the entire economic and reliability needs of both generation and transmission. Knowing that re-integration of generation, transmission and distribution companies into a single company is not going to be realistic, the alternative to IRP would be coordinated regional planning for both generation and transmission. So I used the term “holistic planning” to describe this coordinated planning process which, if done properly, would deliver the same optimal investment decisions as if a single planning entity has applied IRP to the region. This vision was published in an EPRI report and was also published in an article in the IEEE Power and Energy Magazine, in October 2007.

Did any of the conclusions you came to for the report surprise you?
Lee: I would say no, mainly because the issues have been the same since market restructuring. What is new has to do with advances in sensors, communication, including GPS, computation power, the ubiquity of the Internet and the global consensus around the need to reduce CO2 emissions. Wind power plants are not new. Their fast penetration has to do with RPS and the concern for global climate. Looking back to the 1999-2000 reports, one can see that many of the same issues still remain to be of critical needs. But the challenges of integrating massive amount of renewable but intermittent resources, and the prospect of PHEV, and demand response through smart metering, have created needs for new tools and applications and further increased the need to solve some fundamental problems that have always faced wide-area grid operation and planning.

What do you see as the most dramatic difference between today’s grid and the grid that will be in place 20 years from now?
Lee: I envision the power grid 20 years from now will be much stronger than today’s grid. I expect that many more long distance high voltage transmission lines will be built between now and then. These will include both AC transmission forming a stronger backbone and a number of DC transmission projects. The DC transmission projects will deliver power from areas of major power sources to some major load centers. A well-designed high voltage AC power grid will necessarily be built to enable more renewable resources to be integrated with existing power plants and load centers. I also see that a number of large-scale energy storage plants will be needed to compliment the intermittent nature of the wind and solar power plants. Applications of synchro-phasor measurements will be pervasive when the existing analog RTUs (remote terminal units) are replaced by these new devices, modernizing energy control centers with much greater utilization of sensors, measurements, protection systems, and wide-area control. I see the use of powerful computers for monitoring, analysis and control. I also see a level-by-level integration of data and control in both directions, between the customer level, the distribution level, and the grid level. Because the number of measurements and devices at the low level is so high, there will be a filtering of essential signals and data from the lower level to the grid level. In the same way, control functions will move downward from the grid level, through the distribution level to the customer level. The entire power system will behave in a way similar to how the human brain receives information from all parts of the human body, and how the control of the human body is distributed from the brain down to the other parts of the human body. The local control and protection systems, including the activities in each customer, will act in an almost instantaneous manner, as if out of a reflex reaction to local conditions. They will also act according to control signals from the grid level. The whole power supply and delivery chain will operate smoothly and in a well-coordinated manner from one end to the other end. If we imagine the Internet and the other communication networks as the nervous system of the human body, I see the power grid of the future as the blood circulation system of the human body. It will deliver electricity and energy just like the blood circulation system delivers oxygen to the entire body. We are not conscious of how our blood is flowing in our body, but in a miraculous way, it is there wherever it is needed, always in time and in the right amount. We will not see or feel how electricity is delivered or interrupted on its way to our appliances. It will be there whenever and wherever it is needed, in just the right amount and just the right quality. Mind you, the current power grid is doing a marvelous job already. Blackouts and power interruptions are relatively few. However, given the increasing degrees of uncertainty in the variability of the renewable resources and our demands for electricity to charge our electrical vehicles, etc., the challenge on the power grid of the future will be much greater than today. With the modernization and strengthening of the power grid, we will be up to the challenge and indeed deliver greater reliability to the customers.

Your vision is one where the grid “talks” from fuel to light switch. What groundwork do we need to lay out today to get there?
Lee: Yes, my vision is a complete end-to-end power supply and delivery chain which is integrated with a communication and control infrastructure. I see data flowing from one end to the other end and in both directions. However, it is not sending and receiving every single piece of data between any two points of the power chain. That is unnecessary and counter-productive. I see a hierarchy of converting data into information and sharing the necessary amount of information between those parts of the supply chain which need to communicate. Reliability of power supply and delivery is dependent on the health of the entire supply chain. Failures in any part of the chain may create problems for some other parts of the chain. For example, if the gas supply into a gas-fired power plant is suddenly restricted because of the need to supply a much greater amount of gas for home heating, the power plant may have to curtail its electricity output. So knowledge about what is or about to happen in the fuel supply network is very important to the monitoring and forecasting of the state of health or reliability of power supply to the end-use customers. This remark applies equally to the knowledge about weather forecasts which will affect how much wind power or solar power will be generated from a certain geographical area. It also applies to the knowledge about the state of operation of the different appliances and end-uses at the customer level. This brings out the need to have accurate information about the aggregate effects of the equipments connected to the power grid, all the way from the fuel supply network, the power plants, and storage plants, the transmission lines, the transformers, the circuit-breakers, the substation equipment, the distribution network and feeders, the distributed generation, and all the appliances at the customer level.

The groundwork we need to lay out today includes the modernization of the measurement devices, the sensors, the relays and protection systems, the communication network, the computerization and automation of the distribution systems, and modernization of the energy control centers, and the development of advanced computer applications to enable these new functions to be implemented. In the vision white paper, all of these foundations are discussed. What has happened already is that EPRI has been the global center of research for developing the communication standards which enable the Smart Grid to communicate across the entire supply chain. From this foundation, we will be able to make the different parts start talking to one another in a meaningful way. Innovation will take place in all of these parts of the Smart Grid. It is extremely important that the implementation of the holistic power supply and delivery chain will encourage innovation and yet provide a non-proprietary standard for interoperable capability.


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