“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
From “Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll
When it comes to smart grid, the answer, Alice, is a definite yes! The better question is: What isn't meant by the term? The smart grid tent is large enough to house just about any electric power-related technology imaginable. Communications, sensors, distributed intelligence, smart meters, dispatch of distributed generation and storage, demand management, outage management, home automation … you name it.
The term “smart grid” began to appear in the late 1990s, referring to a collective of digital and power technologies that were being experimented with in piecemeal fashion. But even before the 1980s, sensor and communications technologies imported from other industries and the military were looking at the utility industry for new markets, and they found them in spades. Smart substation projects, underground cable and overhead line dynamic thermal rating systems and automated meter demonstrations began popping up around the industry. Most of these technology trials were run by creative utility R&D departments, often in partnership with universities, national laboratories and the Electric Power Research Institute. However, in the main, the legacy electric system and operating practices remained the same. Why take risks? The old “dumb” system had worked consistently, if maybe not optimally, for a century.
That wasn't good enough, said many, including the National Academies of Science. Any hope of using renewables, such as wind and solar, for more than 20% of total generation would require the system to be more intelligent, more flexible, more information-centric and more inclusive of consumer choices.
In response, the Electricity Advisory Committee outlined a desirable smart grid functionality direction in the 2008 report to the Department of Energy “Smart Grid: Enabler of the New Energy Economy.” The Obama administration quickly followed up in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009 by offering US$3.4 billion of stimulus for technology development. About $1 billion was earmarked for end-use technology, primarily smart meters, and $2 billion was put toward constructing the infrastructure to support these meters. Another $400 million was designated for upgrading transmission systems, both to decrease losses and to provide better access to remote wind farms. A grant program for matching funding by utilities brought the total to more than $8 billion. Several utilities quickly ponied up to get in on the deal, and smart grid deployment began on a large scale.
It was the beginning of the biggest U.S. utility industry change since Tesla beat out Edison over a century ago making alternating current the power system standard. The dream was to decrease greenhouse-gas emissions, create green jobs and open new markets to the IT and telecommunications industries all in one fell, economy-stimulating, swoop.
All that is easy to say, tough to execute. The last three years have been an unusual and uncomfortable process for a risk-averse industry that looks for standardization and uniformity, and traditionally has little system diversity between companies. In particular, the number of communications technology choices has never been greater. Depending on terrain, customer density and legacy architecture, there just isn't one solution that fits all. Still, many individual utilities have made large and long-lasting commitments to communications platforms to support the building out of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).
AMI may get the most press, but although the public usually thinks of smart grid in terms of metering and customer automation, the greater societal benefits may result from increased system reliability and efficiency made possible by new sensor technology and automation systems riding on the smart grid communications platforms.
The midterm report card on smart grid has many A's and some C's — a lot of progress, but it hasn't all been fun at the park. In some cases, the time pressure of meeting deadlines outlined by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus co-funding certainly must have led to hastily made technology choices that will be regretted. Then there's the continuing, regional ratepayer pushback against residential smart metering installations. Customers often don't see enough benefits to justify higher rates due to the new meters and communications systems. And, of course, there are the ongoing concerns over the health effects of electromagnetic radiation from wireless meters.
Will the smart grid momentum continue without further federal stimulus funding? It might, if ratepayers and regulatory commissions clearly see adequate benefits. However, even if further development slows to a crawl in the near future, we'll still be left with a transformed power system.
So, what is a smart grid? Visit smartgrid.gov for about as complete a definition of smart grid as we're going to get, even after a decade of discussion and billions spent: “The smart grid is a developing network of transmission lines, equipment, controls and new technologies working together to respond immediately to our 21st century demand for electricity.”
Humpty Dumpty would be pleased. The definition of “smart grid” continues to evolve with the melding of the minds between the power and information industries.