Smart Grid Trends to Watch: ICT Innovations and New Entrants

The convergence of information and communications technologies (ICT) with the traditional operations technologies (OT) is an ongoing Smart Grid trend.   Within the USA and its 3000+ electric utilities, Smart Grid investments focused on optimization of transmission and distribution grid operations through machine to machine (M2M) communications and forays into data analytics for applications ranging from revenue assurance to voltage conservation.

This ICT/OT convergence trend is encouraging new entrants into the vendor ecosystem that supports electric, gas, and water utilities.  One of the latest entrants is Dell Computers.  Dell made two announcements in the past two months that illustrate how ICT companies are exploring Smart Grid market opportunities.  2013 will be the year to watch their strategies and progress.

Dell recently unveiled their Smart Grid Data Management Solution which combines high-performance computing, networking and storage to manage data for review and action in utility operations.  Leveraging domain expertise and the PI System™ from OSIsoft, they developed and tested a reference architecture in a simulation environment that modeled a utility’s transmission grid operations.  Transmission grids have been one of the early beneficiaries of the Smart Grid through products called Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs), which are extremely high speed monitors that sense changes in transmission conditions.  Taking hundreds of measurements per second from multiple PMUs leads to large quantities of data that challenge existing data storage practices in utilities. Dell’s solution coupled with OSIsoft’s solution provides faster updates and makes actionable data available to staff, applications and business systems.  It’s an excellent example of how M2M communications and data management technologies can become ubiquitous in the Smart Grid.

This is a noteworthy collaboration between a traditional ICT vendor (Dell) and a traditional OT vendor (OSIsoft) that is focused on grid operations.  But Dell has also signaled its intent to get involved in the consumer side of the electricity value chain by joining the Pecan Street Inc. Advisory Board.  Pecan Street is an energy and smart grid research and development organization, and serves as a living laboratory with a community microgrid characterized by residence-based solar generation, electric vehicles (EVs), energy efficiency and energy management solutions for homes.  The project is conducting research in the brave new world of consumer/prosumer evolutions and their energy interactions through data analytics.

While the term “big data” is used in this project, its volumes are dwarfed by the volumes of data that are generated by today’s PMU deployments.   Similarly, if smart meters ever provide data to utilities at 15 minute intervals, that would constitute really big data, at least as analytics providers in financial services or telecommunications would define it.  It’s more accurate to describe the Pecan Street project as one that offers horizontal complexity and scalability as the types of devices, with all their variations in hardware, firmware, and software will need to be managed in addition to the networks that connect them.  There aren’t too many analytics companies out there that can offer this expertise, and the best ones are proven performers in other industry sectors outside of electric utilities.

However, Dell has proven abilities in the arena of data management, and they understand a thing or two about consumers after successfully building a competitive business that sells direct to them.  So their moves into the Smart Grid sector portend more than a continuation of the ICT/OT convergence trend.  It also highlights another trend – that of businesses (others are Verizon and Comcast) that are experienced in consumer retail operations and engaged in exploratory activities to directly engage with electricity and water consumers.  Traditional utilities may discover that their business models are disrupted more by this second trend than the first.  Of course, this second trend is a riskier play, and it is too early to tell if these new players will become intermediaries between consumers and utilities.  It will be interesting to watch Dell in 2013 and see how these trends progress.


Data Analytics Solutions – Killer Apps for the Smart Grid

Silicon Valley is always chasing the next killer app, and it’s an activity that is very relevant to the Smart Grid.  What are the killer apps?  It depends on your perspective.  In some cases, the answer will be a technology breakthrough in materials science rather than an innovation in software or communications – which will be the case for energy storage or solar power.  The software killer apps for Smart Grid operations at both utility and regional grid levels will be found in data analytics solutions. 

Sensing and communications technologies that help make the Smart Grid smart create massive volumes of data from thousands to millions of devices that range from meters to transformers, substations to transmission lines, and generation plants.  This data can give utilities new information to revolutionize their operations and improve grid reliability, stability, and efficiency while reducing costs.  But the new data could strain existing capacities of utilities to manage it – particularly in terms of resources and experiential knowledge.  To realize the full benefits of the Smart Grid, we will need data analytics solutions to help utilities deal with the daily deluges of data. 

Data analytics solutions are already in play in one part of the electrical grid.  The electrical grid is a supply chain that consists of generation, transmission, distribution, and consumption.  The transmission grid, which transports bulk power (electricity above 69kV), has been transforming into a smarter grid through remote wireless sensors and control devices that monitor line conditions and high-speed communications networks that transmit this data.  This Wide Area Situational Awareness (WASA) will help avoid future blackouts like the one that impacted the Northeast USA and Canada in August 2003, at a cost of billions of dollars to the two economies.   The US government decided that a little government investment to prevent future blackouts and economic disasters is a good thing, and encouraged and funded the North American SynchroPhasor Initiative (NASPI) to address it.  This project advances the deployment of technology and sharing information and experiences to enhance knowledge.  The remote sensors and control units are called phasor measurement units (PMUs) and take measurements at 30 times per second.  In contrast, the technology PMUs replace only took measurements once every 4 seconds.  Measurements are time-stamped to a common time reference to deliver a very accurate and comprehensive view of the transmission system. 

This synchrophasor data helps utilities, Independent System Operators (ISOs), Regional Transmission Operators (RTOs), power generators and transmission companies identify stresses to the grid and take actions that ensure continued operations.  The challenges for the operations centers are twofold – first to focus on finding the exceptional data that could signal a pending or imminent failure.  It’s the equivalent of going from reading an x-ray to reading an MRI – there’s a lot more to look at, but you still have to understand what you are looking at.  Second, since this data hasn’t existed before, NASPI participants are in the interesting role of discovery – identifying new applications that leverage real-time and historical data. 

Data analytics solutions are the critical linchpins to make sense of all this data.  Data analysis automates sifting through vast amounts of synchrophasor samplings to perform real-time alerts for immediate actions to ensure grid reliability.  Data analysis also creates “baselines” using historical data to detect trends or patterns that will help grid operators identify pending failures and take corrective actions.  Beyond these applications, analytics also aid in power system planning and modeling to integrate both traditional and intermittent renewable sources of generation into the grid and in the forensic analysis of failures.   

The initial analytics results are encouraging, and the fact that there is a coordinated effort led by NASPI expedites the learning process for participants to successfully transform new data into meaningful information.  The transmission part of the electrical grid is well on its way to fulfilling the promise of the Smart Grid using communications technology and intelligent devices to improve grid reliability and stability.  The distribution and consumption links in the electrical supply chain face different operational challenges, with implications for the rollout of data analytics killer apps.  Those distinctions are explored in next week’s blog. 




The Audacity of Hope – Making Energy Clean

The greatest environmental disaster in US history began on April 20, two days before Earth Day.  Even if a miracle occurred and the well stopped leaking now, the damage to the marine and coastal environments will need years to recover.  Who knows – any hurricane that whips up these oiled waters may deposit pollutants miles inland for the foreseeable future. 

This ongoing environmental tragedy makes the reasons to accelerate deployment of Smart Grid solutions all the more compelling.  The Smart Grid uses renewable, clean energy – and lots of it.  The current grid isn’t designed to accommodate variable (wind and solar) sources of energy, but there are two Smart Grid technologies that make it possible.  First is energy storage.  Utility-scale energy storage generally fulfills one of two missions – it is either long-lasting, or it is instantaneously available.  Advances are being made in both storage categories to drive down the costs of energy storage and make it economically feasible.  (There are a few questions about how to define this asset for amortization purposes, and these are regulatory matters that need to be decided at federal and state levels). 

The second technology that supports integration of clean and renewable energy sources into our electrical grid consists of sensors and actuators that remotely monitor and control the grid at points ranging from generation through transmission to distribution.  These devices are called PMUs or Phasor Measurement Units, and they collect time-stamped data samples at multiple points across the grid to deliver what the industry calls “wide area situational awareness”.  That big picture view of the grid helps the people responsible for electricity delivery to prevent brownouts and blackouts. 

These technologies are in deployment now in pilots and in full-fledged operations.  These technologies accelerate integration of renewables into the Smart Grid, and acceleration of the Smart Grid means a faster adoption of EVs (electric vehicles) in this country.  And that means we can give the heave ho to oil, instead of watching it give the heave ho to the entire Gulf ecosystem (which includes all the humans in it). 

I alluded to the regulatory questions about energy storage, and this is important.  You can do something instead of helplessly watching video of oiled marshes and dead birds.  There is a bill in Congress to encourage investment in energy storage.  It is SB1091, the Storage Technology of Renewable and Green Energy act of 2009 (STORAGE) also known as the Wyden bill.  It provides tax credits and accelerated depreciation for energy storage assets, so utilities have financial incentives over and above the good arguments about reducing carbon footprints and reliance on clean forms of energy.    It will create a standard definition of how energy storage assets should be treated.  It is sitting on Capitol Hill right now.  You may not be able to decontaminate the Gulf waters or beaches, but you CAN do this – you can contact your US senators and representatives and ask them to make this the law of the land.  

It’s not an audacious act, but as a combined effort, it becomes part of an audacious goal – to create a Smart Grid that sustains millions of EVs using electricity coming from clean energy sources.  This should be our future, instead of continued reliance on oil.  Is that too much to hope for?


Smart Grid – When Is it Smart? Part 2

Last week I wrote about Smart Grid Rule #1:  You know you have a Smart Grid when you have choices about the type of energy you want to purchase at a price that is acceptable to you – you can buy pure solar or wind-produced electricity, a mixture of any clean energies, or the cheapest electricity without regard to its origin. 

This week the focus moves from generation to transmission.  As electricity consumers, we typically don’t think about transmission until there’s a problem.  For example, many Californians were worried a couple of years ago when the wildfires consumed massive square miles of land that were close to high voltage transmission lines.  Had those been damaged or destroyed, a local fire, a disaster by itself, would have become a much bigger disaster if regional brownouts or blackouts had occurred.

The great blackout of 2003 in the Northeast was caused by transmission failures and the inability of utilities and the RTOs (Regional Transmission Organizations) to understand what was happening and why it was happening.   That blackout cost $6B and 11 lives.   Just as management of local highway grids is much improved with cameras and road sensors to plan proactive measures to reduce traffic congestion, the ability to have some awareness about the health of the transmission system is an important characteristic of a Smart Grid. 

Here’s some Smart Grid jargon for you – synchrophasors.   The definition in the Smart Grid Dictionary is “Precise grid measurements (synchronized phasor) that deliver real time data about the power system.  The information is obtained from monitors called phasor measurement units (PMUs).  Aggregating this time-stamped or synchronized data is useful to delivering a comprehensive view of an interconnect system.  These measurements are used for wide area management of grid operations.”   

Synchrophasors use GPS (Global Positioning System) technology to time-stamp their measurements, making them ideal for wide area situational awareness (WASA).  This situational awareness is so important that the federal government’s Department of Energy (DOE), the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) and industry players are funding a collaborative initiative to improve wide-area power system reliability and visibility through measurement and control using synchrophasor technologies.  This initiative, NASPI (North American SynchroPhasor Initiative), includes large-scale prototypes and regional demonstrations to research, develop, and deploy other uses of this new data.   Some utilities are already using PMUs for their regional real-time grid operations. 

In essence, the NASPI initiative will make the overall transmission system more intelligent because there will be more data about its overall status that can be used to take precautions or corrective actions.  It will also help pave the way for more renewable energy production on the grid.  Two important renewables discussed last week – solar and wind – are intermittent sources of power.  The sun only shines in the day, and only on days of good weather.  The wind is also predictably fickle.  PMUs can also assist in real-time grid operations so utilities can make fast adjustments when the clouds roll in or the wind unexpectedly calms. 

Another problem in our aging transmission system is that the existing technologies typically lose around 10% of the electricity energy in transmission.  Obviously, if we can improve technologies to reduce these losses, that’s a good thing from financial and environmental perspectives.  The Federal government is engaged in RD&D (Research, Development, and Deployment) work to improve power line capacity and efficiency. 

Finally, we don’t have enough transmission capacity, and will need to build more power lines to accommodate growing populations and new sources of generation – such as solar thermal and wind power – which are remote to the populations that will use that electricity.  This will be the subject of next week’s blog. 

 Smart Grid Rule #2:  You know you have a Smart Grid when the transmission of your electricity is thoroughly monitored by PMUs to deliver critical situational awareness and intelligent management of the grid to improve its operations and efficiency, and when transmission lines are updated to the latest technologies to reduce line losses.