Panel prescribes major fixes for aging U.S. power grid

Source: Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2013

Today, everything from bank receipts to the batting averages of baseball players can be coded into megabytes and lines of data. Yet in the United States, the basic infrastructure that underpins these systems — the grid that feeds them with electrons — remains largely untouched by the computerization boom of the past half-century.

As new technologies emerge, however, the grid is being dragged, slowly, into the digital age, according to experts who spoke yesterday at a forum convened by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

“I see direct technology changes coming and an impact from those changes that culminates in a fundamental change to the business model” of power providers, said John Jimison, managing director of the Energy Future Coalition (EFC). “But it’s going to be driven by the technology.”

The recent boom in telecommunications technology holds particular promise for the smart grid, he said. Most of the next-generation grid systems envisioned or being piloted around the country rely on different aspects of the system being able to “talk” to each other, or on operators and consumers having more direct, time-based control over their respective interactions with the grid.

A wholesale retrofit of the power grid, which many experts believe is long overdue, would mean big business for the telecommunications industry, Jimison said.

More destructive weather lends urgency

“The electric utility industry is going to be a big, if not the biggest, customer of the telecommunications industry,” he said. “We’re talking about potentially trillions in investments to bring this equipment and technology to the meter.”

New technology may be pulling the power grid into the 21st century, but other forces are pushing from behind, as well. State and federal renewable energy mandates have compelled many utilities to carve out space in their power portfolios for a variable power supply from solar and wind, while extreme weather events have lent urgency to making the power grid more physically resilient.

“When we think about the technologies we want to integrate into the power grid, the first desired outcome is going to be reducing the impact of outages,” said David Malkin, manager of government affairs and policy at GE Digital Energy. The grid will also need to be capable of integrating power supplies from distributed, smaller-scale resources, he said.

A smarter, more computerized grid should aim for a number of different capabilities, he added. It will need to find, isolate and restore localized problems before they can spread. When part of the grid fails, power may need to be redirected from or to adjacent areas, a process known in the industry as automated circuit reconfiguration.

Utilities and consumers adjust

Perhaps most importantly, from an energy efficiency standpoint, operators will need a grid that can optimize consumer demand, Malkin said.

“We should expect that in the future, customers will be far more active in their own monitoring and consumption of energy than they have been in the past,” he said. Much of that changing relationship is driven by the same technology that is currently transforming the grid, he said — devices like smart meters that provide near real-time feedback about customer energy use.

“We know that utility customers who have feedback [on their energy use] drop their usage on their own by 6 percent, without additional incentives,” said Phil Davis, a senior manager of smart grid solutions at Schneider Electric SA. “Energy use becomes meaningful, whether it’s switching off a light bulb or turning off a thermostat. You think about it more, but it doesn’t mean sacrificing comfort.

Those behavioral changes, along with increasing adoption of renewable generation by both residential and commercial customers, will likely force businesses to alter their basic revenue models of selling electrons at a fixed volumetric price, panelists said.

“We’re going to bring competitive forces to areas once dominated by monopolies,” said EFC’s Jimison. “It’s going to be a challenge for utilities and regulators to keep up to date with what’s going on in the market.”