Upgrading the 100-year-old grid, one standard at a time

Dialog increases between industry and government as billions pour into modernizing power system.


By Brian Fuller

The nation’s power grid hasn’t been upgraded in a century, but suddenly there’s a sense of urgency.

In high-profile meetings from Washington to Santa Clara in the past two months, industry executives, scientists, engineers and government officials have ratcheted up the dialogue about modernizing how energy is generated, distributed and used. The movement, helped by an expected $4.5 billion in government stimulus money, has its roots in the national concern over fossil fuel resources and heightened focus on energy efficiency.

“They’ve moved really fast throughout the month of April and May,” says Lucian Ion, strategic marketing manager for smart grid and energy technology solutions at National Semiconductor. “There’s a tremendous amount of work that’s public already from substation generation to customer’s home.”

The ideal vision, shared by many, is a truly energy-efficient system in which home appliances talk wirelessly to a device that lets consumers understand their power usage and control their consumption; in which utilities talk to homes to manage energy loads at times of peak demand, and in which utilities better manage the distribution of new, “bursty” modes of power generation such as solar and wind.

Two things make electricity unique and a challenge for smart grid: Lack of flow control and electricity storage requirements

“Change either of these and the grid delivery system will be transformed,” says Dick DeBlasio, chairman of the IEEE SCC21 Group, which oversees the P2030 Smart Grid standardization effort.

Updating a system that has worked well and consistently and remained essentially unchanged for 100 years would appear a daunting, time-consuming task, but participants are taking their cue from the Internet, another complex technology infrastructure that has grown and evolved with a focus on standards.

“The Internet was built on open standards ranging from communications and software protocols to standard microprocessors and memory,” says Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril, a provider of residential energy ecosystem technology and a ZigBee Alliance vice chair. “So too it can be with the smart grid.”

The focus on standardization is already yielding benefits. Shortly after a smart grid standards workshop April 28-29, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke hosted a Washington meeting with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and announced 16 standards that are essentially locked down—no debate necessary.

These include:

  • ANSI C12.19/MC1219-Revenue metering information model
  • DNP 3-Substation and feeder device automation
  • IEC 61850-Substation automation and protection
  • IEEE 1686-2007-Security for intelligent electronic devices
  • Open HAN-home area network device communication
  • ZigBee/Home Plug Smart Energy Profile-Home area device communications.

The second big meeting Intel hosted at its Santa Clara headquarters June 3-5. Closed to the media, it was a forum for government organizations and groups such as NIST and the IEEE to begin to lay the foundations for near-term standardization work.

The goal was, among other things, to stimulate the development of a body of IEEE 2030 smart grid standards and or revise current standards applicable to smart grid body of standards.

“Our goal coming into the meeting was to get the process started and people together and in active dialogue,” says Lorie Wigle, general manager of Intel’s Eco-Technology program.

Intel’s interest is largely based in the fact that its core industry, information technology, accounts for 2% of global energy use.

“There was a really good outcome in the willingness and desire for the companies to continue to talk between meetings to make forward progress,” she adds.

At the conclusion of the meeting, three task forces were formed to tackle the next stage of standards work: Task Force 1 (Power Engineering Technology), Task Force 2 (Information Technology) and Task Force 3 (Communications Technology).

The near-term roadmap, according to NIST’s George W. Arnold, includes the initial phase between now and September in which existing consensus standards (including the 16 identified) are recognized; the establishment between now and 2010 of a public-private standards panel to provide recommendations for new and revised standards to be recognized by NIST; and testing and certification later in 2010.

While there are many existing standards and emerging technologies to work with, there are many unresolved issues.

Gaps in some of the standards—notably IEEE power engineering specs—need to be filled, according to Arnold. These include IEEE 1547 (physical and electrical interconnections between utility and distributed generation), IEEE 1588 (precision clock synchronization) and IEEE C37 (standard electrical power system device function, originally published in 1928).

The third task force’s work (communications) may be more challenging, according to Arnold, who described the communications infrastructure for the smart grid as “the Wild West.”

While most of mac/phy layer standards are IEEE’s, guidance will be needed on their application to the smart grid, and additional standards may be needed as well, Arnold says.

Within the home, ZigBee seems to have emerged as the leading wireless communications factor, although powerline and other approaches haven’t been dismissed.

The interface between the home and the utility, though, may or may not emerge as a point of contention. While it’s generally up to individual utilities to choose their communications backhaul (since they own that customer relationship), there are a number of competing ways to update the technology, according to National’s Ion. These include looking at cellular, WiMax or hybrid mesh/wired configurations—even FM radio, he adds.

“There isn’t a clear standard from how you get it from the home. That’s more of an issue of a biz model of how each utility is able to secure a backhaul spot,” Ion says.

In addition, engineers and industry leaders will be examining how to handle emerging technologies that will add load to the grid—plug-in electric vehicles, for example, that charge in a garage overnight. That requires coordination among a number of standards bodies (see chart).

Security throughout the smart grid will remain a constant as the standardization process evolves. “When it comes to running things on the Internet, things can be hacked,” Ion says. “What regulators, independent system operators and utilities are trying to make sure is that things are mission-critical.”

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