Energy is a big focus of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus package. As a result, efforts to make our current electrical transmission and distribution system “smarter” will be getting a boost. Approximately $4 billion will be dedicated to smart-grid technology deployments and demonstration projects.

Of course, $4 billion is only a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of billions needed for a total system overhaul. But this plan could help utilities better understand roadblocks they might face when following through with an effort that some equate with Eisenhower’s interstate highway system plan. Three significant challenges already have been identified: how to develop standards at all levels of the grid to ensure open communications, how the design and installation work will be completed in the face of declining work force numbers, and how to implement demand-driven dynamic pricing plans.

Interoperable standards and protocols

One of the key goals for the new, smarter electrical system is the ability to communicate at all levels, from the generating plant to the refrigerator plugged into a consumer’s wall. But this means building an understanding of some sort of common “language” into a vast array of products, from transmission switches to distribution equipment and common appliances. To help address this task, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has launched P2030, bringing together experts in power engineering, communications and information technology to develop a guide that will inform future standards-development efforts.

“I think we have a knowledge base, and the technology is here,” said Dick DeBlasio, a principle research manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and chair of the IEEE P2030 committee. “We just need to stitch it together to bring [the grid] from 50 years ago to the 21st century.”

DeBlasio is pleased at the level of interest in the group’s work, with almost 500 participants now signed up. He anticipates the P2030 guide will take up to two years to produce, with eventual approval following IEEE’s standard balloting process. He said the guide will be focused at a systems level, not at the level of individual products. Intercommunication capabilities are critical to future success, he said, without stifling innovations.

Work force development

The electrical industry is facing an impending labor shortage at all levels, from system designers and managers to linemen and contractors. The Center for Energy Workforce Development anticipates that approximately 45 percent of electrical engineers in the United States will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has reported that almost half of its members will reach retirement age in the next few years.

The current building slowdown may have reduced the need for contracting personnel in the short term, but demand is sure to rise as utility upgrade programs hit their stride. To address the issue, the IBEW signed an agreement with several utilities in January to establish a trust to fund regional training centers to bring new workers into the fold. Additionally, the IEEE Power & Energy Society is leading a group of industry stakeholders in an effort to create a collaborative action plan to address power and energy engineering work force shortages.

“Bachelor’s and master’s students need to go into computer control and digital control at points of end use and all along the distribution line,” said Gerald Heydt, Regent’s professor of electrical engineering at Arizona State University and lead author of a North American Power Symposium paper on the topic, to be presented in October. He said remedying the shrinking work force numbers could be critical to maintaining U.S. competitiveness.

“A lot of stuff will be designed and manufactured overseas,” he said. “I’m sure China and India would be able to come up with some pretty good solutions.

Dynamic rate setting

One of the biggest promises smart-grid technology offers is the ability to use the market to encourage customer efficiency investments. Smart meters will allow utility customers to understand their electricity use on a minute-by--minute basis, and smart appliances could be programmed to curtail their operation based on demand-based rate structures. However, such dynamic rates are proving controversial among consumer groups concerned they might disproportionately affect lower-income customers unable to afford higher-efficiency appliances.

And, though federal officials are hoping to jumpstart technology-testing plans by setting accelerated stimulus-funding application deadlines for interested utilities, regulators are concerned such an aggressive schedule doesn’t give state authorities time to evaluate rate implications. This is particularly important where utilities want to raise their portion of the stimulus program’s 50 percent matching requirement through electricity rates.

Robin Lunt, assistant general counsel for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said her group wants to ensure no consumers are harmed in the rush to deploy new technologies.

“One of the concerns we have is that the timeframe for getting money out the door doesn’t allow for states to have their regulatory hearings,” she said.

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.