I recently had an opportunity to chat with Gary Rackliffe VP Smart Grids at ABB North America. I met Gary at the ABB Automation and Power World show in Houston last year. Personally he’s a nice guy. Professionally he’s open and very knowledgeable. So I figured I could ask some tough questions about smart grid and get an informed response.

Paul: Gary, 2009 was a banner year for smart grid. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act set aside $4.5 billion for smart grid modernization and development. The DOE set about publishing the first definition of smart grid functionality. One of your competitors even put up a spectacular smart grid commercial during the 2009 Superbowl. All that happened 4 years ago. Now, unless you’re in the power business, you don’t hear much about smart grid. Has the smart grid enthusiasm and momentum slowed a bit?

Gary: Not at all on the utility and manufacturer side, although visibility at the public level has faded. But certainly the industry media and professional conferences and working groups have recognized the shifts in utility investment from almost totally AMI to distribution automation, utility analytics, transmission, and distributed energy resources (DER).

Much of this technology represents utility investment that utility customers do not see, but they benefit from improved efficiency, reduced peak demand, improved reliability and faster restoration, and better utility situational awareness and storm response.

Smart meters also improve operational efficiency for utilities by providing remote connect/disconnects, on-demand reads, and improved quality of data. Utilities often talk about reduced vehicle miles, gasoline savings, improved customer response, and reduced non-technical losses when discussing benefits of AMI.

Paul: Those operational terms are completely foreign to the average ratepayer. But customers pretty much know what a meter is and how it relates to their electric bill. In my opinion, their expectations were a little misdirected by early marketing. Smart meters were sold to the ratepayer and regulator with promises – everything from controlling your residential thermostat from your office PC to optimally dispatching rooftop solar. How do we walk that back?

Gary: Customers will need to understand that the new metering systems have huge operational benefits that go way beyond just collecting revenue. No doubt smart meters and residential networks will eventually be in wider use for managing individual customer load and generation. But the big payoff is at the system level. We are leveraging AMI so that utilities now know when customers are interrupted and can provide more information on estimated restoration times when storms impact grid operations.

Paul: But, in general, they don’t know that and most don’t have the background to understand the impact on their lives. How do you bridge the knowledge gap?

Gary: Customers will see the reliability improvements and the available information, and they will benefit from the efficiency benefits. But this process will take time. Education of the ratepayer starts with developing a good knowledge base and pragmatic vision within the industry. We think we’re doing our part. For example, distribution grid management, including substation automation, is what we showcase in the ABB Smart Grid Center of Excellence.

Paul: Do you think the recent storms helped customers see the benefits of smart grid technology in action?

Gary: In some areas the local grids were so overwhelmed, including massive structural damage, that no communication or automation or any other element of smart grid could possibly be operational. However, there is overwhelming evidence that where the systems remained even partially viable, the benefits in terms of reduced outage times were huge.

Paul: I know you keep your thumb on the government pulse. Now that the impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is tapering off, are the feds still interested in smart grid?

Gary: Definitely. Smart grids and grid modernization is getting attention again in Washington DC. The smart grid investment grants under DOE are being executed as planned and going well. Of course, the government focus of these grants was job creation. That goal resulted in, as we’ve been discussing, advanced metering infrastructure dominating the investments. Now the outage response in the Northeast following superstorm Sandy and the other recent storms have raised awareness about how smart grids can improve the utility recovery process and also provide improved situational awareness.

Washington is also asking about legislative models to enable grid modernization to improve reliability, improve efficiency, and to enable renewable generation. The other big smart grid issue in Washington is cybersecurity. The GridWise Alliance, NEMA, and other industry organizations are actively engaging on the cybersecurity policy discussions.

The big challenge is business case support for grid investments at the distribution level which fall under individual state public utility commission regulatory oversight. Regulatory models, de-regulated markets, de-coupled rates, societal benefits, and operating efficiencies are some the challenges that we need to navigate.

Paul: Thinking big - what are the facets of the smart grid diamond that get you the most excited? Why do you look forward to going to work each day?

Gary: How much time do you have?

Take analytics. Utility analytics include both customer analytics and grid analytics. The customer analytics involve data mining to better understand customer consumption patterns and usage preferences based on smart meter data and unstructured "big data" -- this information helps planning for demand response programs. ABB is very engaged in grid analytics, providing business intelligence solutions for situational awareness to support operations and asset health management to help utilities manage asset performance, maintenance, and investment. We’ve always wanted to expand our efforts in that area – now we’re getting the real-time data that we need.

Paul: Transmission?

Oh yes! Transmission technologies are helping to integrate renewable generation to the grid and to increase grid capacity and efficiency. HVDC, cables, Flexible AC Transmission Systems (FACTS) -- wide-area monitoring with synchrophasers and advanced sensor technology, and enhanced SCADA/EMS.

These technologies are all part of the smart grid paradigm. They improve grid efficiency and capacity and can provide grid support to mitigate the effects of variable renewable generation.

Want more?

Paul: One more. Summarize how near-term smart grid investments will impact distributed energy resources.

Gary: Okay. Investments will continue to grow in demand response, distributed generation, and distributed energy storage technologies in 2013. We will continue to see direct load control demand response, but the industry will also be moving out pilot implementations for dynamic demand response and the other distributed energy resources. I do think that there will be some competition for dollars between demand response on the consumer side of the meter and grid enabled demand response through volt/VAr optimization. Electric vehicles are selling slower than expected so in the near term EV infrastructure will be charging stations and demand response applications. Microgrids are growing for both off-grid and grid-connected applications. Microgrid-derived control technology should also enable thermal, hydro, wind, and solar generation to be managed with battery and flywheel energy storage and demand response control of loads. Improved reliability, integration of renewables, and remote off-grid solutions are microgrid investment drivers.

Still more?

Paul: Enough for now. My brain is full. Thanks for your time, Gary!

About the Editor

Paul Mauldin earned his B.S. and an M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of California-Berkeley and is a registered professional engineer who has worked in the energy industry for more than 25 years.