Make the Smart Grid Smarter with Grid Resiliency

The most magnificent machine in the world, our national electric grid, is managed and measured for reliability.  Reliability is an important objective – we all depend on utilities delivering their best efforts to Keep The Lights On (KTLO).  And utility workers have done amazing work in maintaining our aging electrical system infrastructure.

But this infrastructure design, and particularly its emphasis on centralized, remote generation leaves it highly vulnerable to failures.  These vulnerabilities are most pronounced in the reliance on wires.  While burying wires would address some weather-related disruptions, this action would have absolutely no use in ensuring service reliability in the case of cyber attacks that cripple assets at the generation plant or substations.  In other words, we need to think about building a grid in an era when power outages could be the electrical equivalent of internet denial of service attacks.  In that perspective, putting wires underground to eliminate service disruptions is akin to slapping a fresh coat of paint on a 20 year old car.  It will improve appearance, but it won’t improve overall resiliency.

We must rethink the supply of electricity to the grid to make it more reliable and resilient to natural and human-caused failures.  We need to redefine our expectations of grid reliability to include grid resiliency.  We need a definition of grid resiliency to create policy objectives that spur these deployments.  We also need grid resiliency metrics to benchmark utility performance to these objectives.

What does resiliency look like in other mission-critical operations?  Communications providers engineer resiliency into their operations through “self-healing” networks and redundant equipment.  Data centers use similar tactics to build resiliency into their operations.  They incorporate policies of “graceful degradation” using technologies that can focus limited operations to priority users.  Even their definitions are very similar:  the fast recovery with continued operations from any type of disruption.  Smart Grid technologies already make some self-healing possible for grid operations – through real-time detection and isolation of problems to prevent voltage fluctuations in the form of surges and sags and smart meters that automatically send alerts about loss of power.  But once you lose that remote supply or that connection between remote supply and consumption, these technologies cannot ensure grid resiliency.

There is no formal definition of resiliency for the Smart Grid, and that’s why I propose this definition:  the fast recovery of an acceptable level of electricity services on a continuing basis despite disruptions to normal operations. 

This definition addresses any type of disruption including cyberattack, human error, or any natural calamity or disaster.  It offers a flexible performance gauge in its designations of “fast recovery” and an “acceptable” level of service during disruptions.  Acceptable service levels also accommodate the concept of graceful degradation of service to focus on prioritized end users depending on the severity of the service disruption.   It can be applied to the entire Smart Grid supply chain of generation, transmission, distribution, and consumption.

We shouldn’t limit our thinking about the Smart Grid to simply updating existing electricity supply models.  For example, the placement of electricity generation in the form of microgrids, virtual power plants (VPPs), and other distributed energy resources (DER) assets offers new possibilities for resiliency by changing the supply chain.  Machine to machine (M2M) technologies add intelligence and enable communications between grid devices to create new levels of operational awareness.  Increasingly efficient and cost-effective microgeneration and energy storage products offer alternatives to existing generation strategies.  We can create new policies and business models that leverage Smart Grid technologies for maximum benefits to our economy, security, and environment.  We can rethink and redefine the grid.  As Albert Einstein said, “”We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

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