Point, line, plane, um, wait, I got this Ö

I love math, but I still have nightmares of my 10th grade geometry class because it exposed fragile parts of my brain. I failed all those “mechanical aptitude” tests where they show you a shape flattened out with fold lines and you’re supposed to know what it looks like folded up. They were good predictors; I’m terrible with anything mechanical, and any power tool bigger than a 3/8" cordless drill is out for me. It’s why I’m an electrical engineer, so I only have to use a screwdriver occasionally and remember not to stick my tongue on the electric fence.

21
The Smart Grid Can Deliver
(Click graphic to zoom by 3.0x)

So this buzzword of “smart grid” got me thinking – with point, line, and plane being the Euclidean basics, the “grid” struck me as a more complex construct on the geometric hierarchy. The next thought that came to mind was a theorem needing a proof: What we have for electricity distribution, at least in the United States, is neither smart nor a grid at this time … discuss.

I thought perhaps that was too harsh a position. Our economy and standard of living are nothing without electricity, and it’s amazing that things work as well as they do. But this is the 21st century. When we interviewed Tom Fredricks and asked him what the biggest problems are facing energy efficiency efforts, he replied, “We’d like to see more interoperability across the smart grid ecosystem.” I’m now convinced I’m not hallucinating (at least on that front), and I’m not alone in my belief.

What we have right now isn’t quite a grid; it’s a quilt. For an illustration of what I’m talking about, see NPR’s map of the U.S. electric grid. We like to call it a grid because that sounds technical. But in reality, we have a lot of disparate power networks patched together to share some power and meet demand in different parts of the country. Roughly stated, there is an Eastern interconnect (extending to the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma), a Western interconnect, and a Texas interconnect. Standards are few except for materials and classes of components. Transmission voltages vary, interfaces aren’t well-defined, and when you toss in things like environmental regulation, it gets really interesting. It’s a big, complex system, but it’s hardly a grid.

The other part of being a grid would imply redundancy. If your closest neighbor couldn’t supply power, it could come from another neighbor. In an ideal world, it could hop from neighbor to neighbor until it reached the right neighborhood. When the current system functions properly, it does work that way somewhat, but of course it doesn’t work that way when things go wrong.

Having grown up in the Northeast, one thing that gives me nightmares is the November 1965 blackout. One tripped relay in Ontario wiped out power to 25 million homes, including the house I lived in. Being 3 at the time, it felt kind of like camping, with flashlights and blankets sprawled out in the living room instead of outside. I do remember it got pretty cold after a while, cold enough to inspire my mom to fire up the propane oven with the door open, keeping the house sort of warm but not very safe in retrospect.

Can’t happen again, huh? A similar geography was blacked out in August 2003, which our folks in Detroit could probably tell us about since this one made it a little farther west. This blackout was more of a series of events combining to produce a huge dip in the grid that triggered generator shutdowns at a couple hundred power plants.

Which brings me to my next point about the smart grid not being that smart, either. It’s clear that individual generating stations are protected against faults. Interestingly, the station that was the cause of the 1965 blackout was fully protected in 2003. But what protects the grid against a few stations shutting down, and then a few more, and then a bunch when they see their conditions going haywire?

We need a smart grid, but how do we create it? And are we getting any closer?

Electricity is a funny thing. It’s very difficult to store in large quantities, like enough to power a neighborhood for 15 minutes. When demand increases, supply has to respond from somewhere – fire the diesels up, run the dam a bit more open, something. Nukes, large coal plants, and large dams provide a baseline of power, but peaking demand comes from smaller, faster-responding resources. The problem with alternative energy right now is its whimsical nature. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine when you need more power, so alternative energy doesn’t make a good baseline or a decent peaking technology. Alternative sources tend to work best in smaller settings – one building, one solar unit – or in settings with more predictability like sun in the Southwest.

The ideal smart grid solution involves not only managing supply, but also managing demand in real time at the areas of the grid where the supply shortfall is located.

What we’re seeing now is a push to measure demand first, which is why utilities are installing smart meters. Instead of just sitting around and waiting for aggregate demand to change, a smart meter install base in a neighborhood enables utilities to see demand changing at the building level and start predicting where demand is going sooner so an appropriate response can be generated. At the next level, utilities will encourage you and I to install programmable thermostats they can control to back off your air conditioner a couple degrees in the mid-afternoon – maybe not a huge difference for each of us, but a big difference when added across 10,000 buildings.

But it’s still building by building, neighborhood by neighborhood, region by region, and utility by utility right now. And smart meters do not a smart grid make, at least by themselves.

While organizations such as the GridWise Alliance, Electric Power Research Institute, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and more are trying to drive technology, the biggest need is an overriding set of standards that will allow the array of technologies to work together, connect, and interoperate nationwide.

I would enjoy carving out some time to work with any organization willing to discuss smart grid developments, either in an article or sponsored E-cast. I’d like to see my theorem disproved in a compelling way. Track me down.

In the meantime, this issue covers a variety of ideas on energy efficiency from the likes of Emerson Climate Technologies, Altera, Virtual Extension, and Akros Silicon. And I encourage you to take a look at our May issue in the new HyperMag format, which showcases our latest interactive design with exciting information and ideas.

Editor’s note: Lead image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.