Although the hyperbole of the recent elections is past us, one of the buzzwords that gained momentum in the process was the term “smart grid.” I agree with those in the electric utility industry who take exception to such a concept, with all the implications associated with it, including that the current grid is “dumb” and the smart grid will solve all our power problems.

Countless groups have sprung up, and everyone is trying to get a piece of the pie Congress promised with the passing of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Among sections on improved fuel economy of transportation vehicles, biofuels, appliances and lighting standards, energy savings in buildings and industry and government, carbon capture and sequestration (one of my favorites), healthy high-performance schools, green jobs, and even pool and spa safety, is Title XIII—Smart Grid. It states a policy “to support the modernization of the Nation’s electricity transmission and distribution system to maintain a reliable and secure electricity infrastructure that can meet future demand growth.” It intends to achieve a series of characteristics defined as the smart grid, including optimization, integration, incorporation, deployment, development and identification of a host of things that will “improve reliability, security, and efficiency of the electric grid.”

Though this congressional action and other sources have prompted more than 80 organizations to be formed around the concept of the smart grid, to those working in the electric utility industry, it seems hauntingly familiar to concepts such as “substation automation” on which I first attended a conference nearly 30 years ago in October 1979. One of the primary control mechanisms that has been in place for years is the system-protection- scheme of relays that sense different parameters being out of limits. Then, a signal is sent to the breakers to open the circuits affected in an attempt to clear the fault. If the fault cannot be cleared within several attempted reclosing sequences, the breakers remain open, and a blackout or outage occurs. The system-protection scheme protects the generators, transformers, wires and other equipment that delivers electricity from its source to the loads. It is actually quite a sophisticated (not dumb) scheme that runs mostly on its own with human overseers. Today’s technologies, especially with regard to communication, provide tools to allow for vastly increased amounts of data, information and occasionally answers to be provided to those who control the electric grid functions.

So how does the grid get smarter? Is it by adding meters with more functions, appliances with remote control, more renewable sources of energy, such as windmills and solar panels, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in every garage? Will it improve the quality, quantity, cost and security of the essential component of the digital equipment dependence in today’s business, education, military and government operations? If you listen to the hype of many of those with vested interest in getting a piece of this business (and government appropriations), there are claims by well-meaning people that a smart grid can eliminate most of the backup power requirement, improving both cost and environmental performance. I think the truth is closer to what another industry expert states, “there is no silver bullet when it comes to enabling technologies for a smarter grid; there is instead ‘silver buckshot,’ an array of technological approaches that will make it work.”

To that end, the EISA 2007 Title XIII SEC. 1306 (d) defines the term “smart grid functions” as any of the following (editorially consolidated): “the ability to develop, store, send and receive digital information concerning electricity use, costs, prices, time of use, power quality characteristics, disruptions or changes in power flows on the grid, nature of use, storage, or other information relevant to device, grid, or utility operations, to or from or by means of the electric utility system, through one or a combination of devices and technologies ... [and/or] a computer or other control device, [with the goals to enabling automatic protective responses to sustain reliability and security of grid operations,] ... detect, prevent, communicate with regard to, respond to, or recover from system security threats, including cyber-security threats and terrorism, ... [and even have] any appliance or machine to respond to such signals, measurements, or communications automatically or in a manner programmed by its owner or operator without independent human intervention.” And it includes the catch-all provision of “other functions as the Secretary may identify as being necessary or useful to the operation of a Smart Grid.”

One of the old adages I learned early in my career from my quality manager was, “What gets measured gets done.” Is the aforementioned definition of smart grid measurable? Not to be outdone, the Europeans are working on the Super Smart Grid, to interconnect from the Arctic Circle in Norway to the Sahara Desert. Stay tuned, and be sure to check back with ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR in October 2039 for an update.

BINGHAM, a contributing editor for power quality, can be reached at 732.287.3680.