I WAS ASKED TO PRESENT AT THE RECENT IEEE TRANSFORMERS WORKING GROUP MEETING IN CHICAGO. When we were searching for a topic, my friend Greg Anderson, who handles the meetings, suggested I talk about anything but smart grid. The engineers were (to use a transformer term) saturated and nothing more on smart grid could penetrate their brains.

I asked, “What if I talk about the need for a dumb grid?” At that moment, the nugget for my presentation and this editorial was unearthed. So, here is the question I posed to a roomful of hardened engineers: Why shouldn't we maintain the ability to operate in a dumb mode?

Here is an analogy to which we can all relate. I was trying to move some stuff around in Outlook when I got a warning to this effect: Do you really intend to delete your Outlook files? That warning sent cold shivers down my spine. My professional life is in my 3500 contacts. So, instead of answering yes or no, I did what any coward would do. I turned off the computer. Then when it booted back up, I was queried as to whether I would like to boot up in safe mode. That I answered with an emphatic “yes.”

Let's look at another example. We are now designing quite sophisticated third-generation nuclear plants that are inherently safe. So, if problems arise, gravity takes over, and the fuel rods are immediately lowered to quench the reaction. This should enable us to provide safe, reliable nuclear power at lower costs, because we will need fewer and less-robust backup systems. In other words, it is inherently safer because it fails in safe mode.

Here is a situation that occurred right here in our T&D back yard. During a major ice storm in Kentucky last year, an operator several states away was remotely sending signals to open distribution switches. Only the operator wasn't aware the switches were frozen over and resulted in broken switch hinges. This utility would have been better served if it had the ability to operate in safe mode.

I covered both hurricanes Katrina and Ike, and I can state first-hand that the local utilities were back to the basics as they worked to get their grids back. Instead of being swamped with data from outage management systems, the utilities tackled storm restoration the old-fashioned way — grounding out distribution feeders and turning circuits over to contractors and putting the lines back up.

CYBER SECURITY: YET ANOTHER REASON FOR SAFE MODE

You might remember when drone missiles took out Al-Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan. Information leaked out that the locations were tracked when the terrorists used cell phones. The terrorists quickly reverted to more-primitive modes of communication. Yes, handwritten, hand-delivered notes. This “dumb” method of communication solved their security problem.

Now, consider all the virus software we have today to protect us from cyber hackers and malware. And as IT systems get more sophisticated, so do the hackers. So, operating in safe mode should enable us to defer investment in security and software so that more asset investment dollars go into wire, poles, insulators and transformers.

Here is another example that is quite close to home. When I worked at the Georgia Power Research Center, we were as computer savvy and as data heavy as any engineering users in the company. Yes, we did great things with our laboratory software and sophisticated data-acquisition systems, but we when we looked back, we discovered that almost half our overhead now consisted of obsolete computers and software. And those stranded investments had to be passed on to our internal and external customers. I can see that same pattern happening today if we spend too early and too heavily in smart grid without looking at the true value of these investments to our customers.

I was talking with Terry Boston, CEO of PJM, recently, and I queried him on the value of the smart grid.

“Rick,” he said, “I'd rather operate a robust grid than a smart grid any day, but the truth is that the smart grid will cost less to build out than the robust grid.” I hate it when someone deflates one of my rants, but I have to admit that Terry was right. New bulk transmission is ghastly expensive.

I might not have the following costs exactly right, but you get the point. After the Chicago blackout in 1999, ComEd rebuilt the downtown loop for around $1.3 billion. In the Northeast, the Connecticut-Norwalk 345-kV line completed several years ago cost on the order of $1.2 billion. And the AEP-Allegheny 765-kV line now being built is projected to cost on the order of $1.8 billion. Hey, major infrastructure build outs do not come cheap. Okay, so maybe we can't afford a totally robust grid.

So, let's build out our smart grid with safe-mode or dumb-grid settings or features for those times when things go wrong. Maybe a backstop approach would be less expensive than designing for all possible contingencies on the front end. If security is threatened, we can lock down our intelligent portals and our high-bandwidth connections and go to safe mode. And if we develop this safe-mode capability, cyber thugs will probably expend less effort to hack into our networks knowing that the likelihood of major disruptions had been dramatically reduced.

I was running this idea that we might be getting too smart for our britches by Evan Gaddis, CEO of the National Electric Manufacturing Association. Gaddis cautioned, “For any feature on the grid, we need to constantly weigh the cost, performance and benefits to ensure that we have the right mixture. If, under duress, a grid element either causes or compounds an outage, the value of either the security or ‘smartness’ of that element is going to be called into question.”

THE GRID ALREADY HAS A BRAIN

We all know the grid is already smart and getting smarter. Our recent six-part podcast series on the smarter grid hosted by ABB received unbelievable traction. And the participants stuck to what is real and to what utilities can justify. You can download the series from our home page, www.tdworld.com.

Some utilities already have the ability to load circuits more heavily with dynamic ratings. Others now dynamically balance voltage. To get more out of our substation equipment, we access sophisticated diagnostic and monitoring tools. Automated switching schemes gain us higher reliability. All are good but all are increasingly complex, and thus more susceptible to disruption. We really need default settings. Consider the default conditions I saw in the streets of Houston when I was covering Hurricane Ike. All the street lights in the city were either dark or blinking red.

Before we find ourselves responding to the next major storm, let's investigate which features we could let go dark and which features could blink red. Let's have default settings for our breakers and switches. Let's maintain local protection schemes that could take over in the substations. When our systems are under duress, we can live without the sophistication called upon under more static times.

I acknowledge we will see an increasingly intelligent and robust grid. But our love for all things smart grid is getting out of hand.

A magazine showed up on my desk the other day with this question posed on the spine: “Will the Smart Grid Take Over the World?” This question I can handle myself. The answer is an emphatic “no.”

In this frothy smart grid era, I pose a different question: Can we retain the ability to be dumb like a fox when conditions warrant? To use President Obama's mantra, “Yes we can.” Let's build out only those elements of smart grid that make sense for each utility, but let's retain the ability to operate in safe mode.