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Design Impact » Blog Archive » Designing the Evolution to the Smart Grid

Designing the Evolution to the Smart Grid

Please welcome Design Impact’s newest guest blogger, Dan Livengood, a Ph.D. candidate from the MIT Engineering Systems Division.


Electricity. In the developed world, electricity is simply interwoven into our lives to the point where most people don’t think about it unless it’s suddenly not there. Although it often gets a bad rap for when blackouts and other disruption events occur, let’s not forget that national and international electricity systems (especially the one in the US and Canada) are often called the largest “machines” in the world. Considering their size and the number of interconnected parts, electricity systems work impressively well. The fact that most people don’t think about electricity except for the moments it’s not there is arguably evidence of that. In recognition of this impressive “machine”, ‘electrification’ was named the top engineering achievement as ranked by the National Academy of Engineering’s ‘Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century’!

So, is the electrical grid broken? Arguably (which I will not do here), no.

Is there a strong desire to upgrade the system so it operates better and more efficiently? Yes.

The so-called “smart grid” is a hot topic now, with a major influx of investment coming from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Smart Grid Investment Grants. However, the grid will not change overnight. In my mind, upgrading the largest “machine” in the world will be a continuous evolutionary process.

For me, this is the connection to the Design Impact blog, and I’d like to thank Dr. James Allison for inviting me to write a guest entry about the smart grid. The smart grid will ultimately have many levels of design. How should we design the smart grid? How should we design the consumer products that will interact with the smart grid? How do we design the evolution to the smart grid while continuing to operate the grid in whatever state it is currently in? With apologies to whoever said this originally (as I have forgotten), an analogy I particularly like is that upgrading the current grid to the smart grid on the fly is effectively equivalent to changing the engine on a commercial jet while it’s flying.

Designing and managing the smart grid evolution will be a huge challenge, although not insurmountable. Ultimately, designing the underlying enabling infrastructure for the smart grid will be key. At the moment, we simply aren’t sure which technologies or systems will work best for the smart grid. To address this, I am a firm believer in experimenting and trying new technologies in demonstration projects, which is precisely the point made recently by Patricia Hoffman, DOE’s assistant secretary for electricity delivery and reliability. The Smart Grid Investment Grants are certainly a solid start at funding some experimental smart grid designs. Some ideas will work, some won’t. As these demonstration projects progress, there will be a desire to keep what works and jettison what doesn’t on the fly, meaning that the smart grid will always be in a state of transition. So, how do we design the smart grid to continuously operate under continuous change?

I return to my point earlier that the underlying enabling infrastructure will be key. One effort to help support this goal is the monumental task being spearheaded by NIST to establish communication standards for the smart grid. Among other things, smart meters, utility energy management systems, home energy management systems, and even appliances will need to be able to ‘talk’ with one another. The full spectrum of devices that will connect to the smart grid will almost certainly come from more than one manufacturer, much like a multitude of devices connects seamlessly to the Internet. Establishing communication and interoperability standards is thus critically important for innovation to flourish on the smart grid just as it has on the Internet.

Smart meters are also undoubtedly a key enabling piece of the smart grid’s evolution. Electricity usage is read off of older meters at a frequency of at most once a month, whereas these smart meters will be read on the order of a few minutes to hourly. With this more frequent feedback of electricity usage, electricity customers will have a better understanding of how much electricity they use and at what times they use it. However, smart meters are just a starting point, and as a few utilities have found out, there will be some growing pains along the way as we transition into the smart grid.

These growing pains are likely part of what was behind a recent announcement that had the smart grid world buzzing: the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) turned down Baltimore Gas and Electricity’s smart meter rollout proposal. Personally, I think the Maryland PSC made the right call for reasons along the lines of what Chris King discusses in an article for SmartGridNews (which is a smart grid newsletter that I recommend perusing for anyone interested in easy reading and quick introductions to the many movers and shakers in the smart grid space). It’s not that the Maryland PSC doesn’t support the smart grid. Quite the opposite, I believe. My interpretation of their reasoning is simply that ‘we like where you’re going, but we think your smart grid system design should be better.’ Designing these systems is, frankly, going to be hard. Some pieces, like smart meters, are necessary enablers of the smart grid, but there is much more to truly make the system work. There are many questions to answer as well. Among them, how will customers react in the long run to smart meters, real-time electricity information and possibly time-varying pricing? Will the new smart grid system truly operate more efficiently than the old system? Again, one of the best ways to find this out in my mind is to try out some ideas through demonstration projects, just as Patricia Hoffman suggested.

I’ll stop here for this entry and return at a later date with some thoughts on one or more of the other pieces of the smart grid. I welcome any comments, questions or suggestions of which topic or topics to discuss next.
Once again, many thanks to Dr. James Allison for providing me the opportunity to write this guest entry for his Design Impact blog. Have a great day, everyone!

Posted: July 20th, 2010 | Filed under: Design, Energy, Policy, Sustainability |

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