Mastering the Smart Grid

The smart grid concept is transforming- how the United States will produce, deliver and manage electric power to factories, schools, offices and homes. A continental end-to-end rebuild may be years away, but its development is now. Learning what a smart grid is and how to meet installation, maintenance and expansion needs is a sure way for electrical contractors (ECs) to get into the game.

“This is an extremely dynamic time for smart grid development,” said Chris Irwin, program analyst, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. “It’s clear our current grid system over the last 100 years is not necessarily ready for the next 100. As we grow as a nation and economy, the current grid will not produce at the same rate of our growth. We need to handle it in a much more intelligent way.”

Defining smart grid and the EC’s role
A smart grid comprises a number of elements. Each requires a level of research and development, policy-making and, -ultimately, customer buy-in. Why is it smart? There are a lot of definitions that get to the same answer.

“It’s an overlay of modern communication and networking technologies to extend the control, delivery and sharing of information on a bigger footprint than the traditional grid,” Irwin said.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007) “Statement of Policy on Modernization of the Electricity Grid” characterizes the makeup of a smart grid in broad terms. These 10 characteristics also clearly point to roles for the EC (see sidebar). Of the 10, contractors could certainly apply their expertise in the installation and maintenance of renewable-energy sources, demand-response technology, smart metering and other interactive tools, and energy-consumption monitoring.

“The [smart grid] is one of the most critical developments for the electrical contracting industry,” said Bernie Kotlier, director, Green Energy Solutions, California Labor Management Cooperative Community. “More and more, we hear ECs can prosper as energy-solution contractors. The smart-grid-to-smart-building is a critical aspect of that work. Buildings will be controlled by a brain that will manage many functions from lighting and HVAC to integrated clean-energy sources. That will require more electrical energy systems housed in the building and controlled for efficiency.”

“Lots of other trades—be they IT folks, HVAC installers, ESCOs, or building engineers—want to install, integrate, commission and maintain this building brain,” Kotlier said. “Electrical contractors need to master these control systems, or we’ll be shut out of this work.”

Both Irwin and Kotlier see opportunities in commercial, industrial and residential markets.

“Consumer empowerment is central to the DOE’s smart grid mission,” Irwin said. “Electrical contractors are right there for the consumer to enable that experience.”

For example, Irwin pointed to residential and light commercial customers and what could be the new appliance—real-time energy information monitors that allow owners to view their energy consumption.

Shovel-ready projects
The DOE’s Smart Grid Investment Program is involved in 100 grid-modernization projects. An additional 32 demonstration projects, funded at $620 million, have been added through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. These shovel-ready projects are meant to stimulate employment as well as progress smart-energy usage. One of these represents a major project in smart grid training and development for electrical contractors and others. It’s called the Grid Smart Training Application Resource (GridSTAR) Center and is being developed by Pennsylvania State University.

David R. Riley, associate professor of architectural engineering, and director of Penn State’s Center for Sustainability in Philadelphia, served as principal investigator for the grant submittal.

“Power plant management, high-voltage management and power distribution to building control systems are all important to embed into a new power delivery and usage infrastructure. They will help us understand and manage tomorrow’s grid. Our faculty expertise in these and other topics will be the foundation to provide the necessary instruction needed to prepare contractors, engineers and others for a smart grid,” he said.

Riley described GridSTAR as a fluid training program progressing as the smart grid develops.

“Lessons learned in public and private research across the country will be incorporated into our program,” Riley said. “We will also share what we learn from DOE-demo projects. Each will help us in next steps of smart grid development, forcing us to ask new and sharper questions. The center will be structured to align with the components and challenges of a smart grid. You can’t just teach one element, say cyber security, without fully integrating courses in advanced metering and sensors, energy storage and demand, and construction. The primary audience will be the skilled work force.”

Riley added his university isn’t alone in receiving funding for smart grid research. Georgia Tech has an award, and others are emerging.

“Our goal is to develop a robust infrastructure to accelerate the development, commercialization and adoption of smart grid technologies. I am most excited by new energy-storage ideas and distributed-energy storage to smooth out the load profile of the grid. I think what’s happening in the private (e.g., GE and Cisco) and the public sectors are a ramp up to the extensive research and development needed to help us understand what a smart grid should be and what is needed to get it done.”

Curriculum and material development is proceeding. By fall 2010, Riley hopes to be piloting training programs. Though the DOE funding is slated for a three-year project, he said the university sees the GridSTAR Center as a permanent effort.

Elements to Make the Whole
A series of actions is needed to modernize the grid. The DOE’s Smart Grid Task Force spelled out the following actions:
• Increased use of digital information and controls technology to improve reliability, security and efficiency of the electric grid
• Dynamic optimization of grid operations and resources, with full cyber-security
• Deployment and integration of distributed resources and generation, including renewable resources
• Development and incorporation of demand response, demand-side resources and energy-efficiency resources
• Deployment of smart technologies (real-time, automated, interactive technologies that optimize the physical operation of appliances and consumer devices) for metering, grid operations and status communications, and distribution automation
• Integration of smart appliances and consumer devices
• Deployment and integration of advanced electricity storage and peak-shaving technologies, including plug-in electric and hybrid electric vehicles, and thermal-storage air conditioning
• Consumer provision of timely information and control options
• Development of standards for communication and interoperability of appliances and equipment connected to the electric grid, including infrastructure serving the grid
• Identification and lowering of unreasonable or unnecessary barriers to adoption of smart grid technologies, practices and services

Source: “Statement of Policy on Modernization of the Electricity Grid”
The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007)

Lighting controls connection
“Our best pathway to play an important part in the implementation of this future energy strategy is advanced lighting controls,” Kotlier said. “Such systems will serve as a link to other control systems in an automated demand and response (ADR) network, connecting a smart building to the smart grid. Helping building owners receive and execute orders to the grid to reduce load during peak-shaving hours is very exciting because they will realize significant savings.”

Kotlier added that many U.S. utilities are working on ADR. In California, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas and Electric, and major municipals are involved in ADR programs.
“Most of the R&D work is done, and the technology is proven. It would be helpful if more lighting control manufacturers integrated automated demand response,” he said. “We need broader commercial offerings to support faster and greater adoption.”

Sila Kiliccote serves as program manager for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Demand Response Research Center in Berkeley, Calif. She explained how DR and ADR work.

“There’s automated and manual demand control,” she said. “In the manual iteration, utilities decide to call an event or peak-energy moment based on high energy usage or severe weather forecasts. The customer receives an e-mail or text message alerting them to take agreed-upon actions to reduce their load. Under an automated system, a utility server contacts the customer’s energy management system. Commercial customers might choose to dial back their HVAC, reduce their lighting or tap into some form of energy storage. The industrial customer might power shift, finding nonpeak times of the day for some of its production. Demand response is always associated with a level of service reduction. Utilities and customers have to find that sweet spot (timing and strategy).”

“I would call ADR a matured technology,” Kiliccote said. “We’re trying to create an open and interoperable infrastructure, so no vendor can claim rights. If you switch from one energy company or another, you should not have to change the technology; it’s consistent. Commercial and industrial customers who are using it today find the platform easy to implement and not terribly expensive. We’re looking to the building industry to take this on, so market transformation can take place. In Seattle, we’ve signed up five commercial buildings to participate with their utility’s demand-response program to better handle peak loads due to electric-based heating during the winter months.”

Kiliccote noted ADR is also being tested in Florida. Programs in California are, in fact the result of a 2006 mandate by the California Public Utilities Commission that felt the technology was ready.
“Many smart people are working on the smart grid,” Kiliccote said. “I’m very optimistic.”

An excellent smart grid resource is available through the DOE at

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Gavin, LEED Green Associate, is the owner of Gavo Communications, a sustainability-focused marketing services firm serving the energy and construction industries. He can be reached at .

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