By Anjan Bose
The electric utility industry is evolving to a smart grid future. We know the direction in which the grid is evolving and its key themes: The future grid will incorporate a much higher percentage of renewable resources and energy storage devices. Its distribution system will allow two-way power flows to incorporate these new technologies. Customers will have detailed information about their services and interact directly with their power companies. And a sophisticated overlay of communications and computing technologies will be employed to manage the grid.
While the evolution to this future is clearly under way, the industry must address three key issues if it wants to guide the evolution and accelerate its pace. In my opinion, the industry needs to 1) use more holistic approaches when solving grid problems; 2) commit substantially more spending on grid-related R&D; and 3) support technology advancements with policies that facilitate technology implementation.
I would like to explain the importance of these issues and suggest approaches for tackling each of them.
1) Pursue holistic solutions to smart grid problems
The smart grid is the integrator of all technologies, new and old, which will be part of the system. Millions of components that are electrically connected form the grid. Therefore, it's not possible to solve the grid’s problems without looking at the grid as a system and in a holistic way. Government and industry need to recognize this.
Similarly, organizations cannot work on grid problems in piecemeal fashion. Changes made to the distribution side of a smart grid will impact the transmission side, and vice versa. Changing the percentage of renewable energy in the system will impact the operational stability of the whole grid.
Electricity system research at the Department of Energy (DoE) illustrates this issue and how it can be addressed. Like many research organizations, DoE has been organized by individual R&D units that conduct research on wind generation, customer rooftop solar systems, microgrids, or the integration of commercial building systems, for example. Traditionally, there has been little coordination between these units, yet these activities really are tightly related to one another and the work must be coordinated to serve an overall strategy. DoE recognized this need and in 2011 it formed a Grid Tech Team to clarify its smart grid vision and coordinate the department’s current and future research to serve this vision. The team’s work should help the agency improve the effectiveness of its smart grid research.
All research organizations in the private and public sectors should learn from this example and seek ways to guide their research more holistically, in my opinion.
2) Invest more in grid-related R&D
The United States leads the world in the conceptual development of the smart grid but in my opinion, moving from concept to reality has been difficult. One factor is the huge investment needed to modernize the grid. Another factor is that we are not spending enough on grid-related research to be able to quickly integrate all the new technologies we are developing.
For example, DoE’s grid-related R&D is less than 10% of the agency’s electric energy R&D. This proportion is too small to solve the grid issues involved in integrating new technologies. The European Union, for comparison, spends a higher proportion on grid-related research, and China even significantly more.
The power industry also needs to establish grid innovation as a primary R&D goal. Currently the industry focuses its R&D on technologies like wind and solar rather than the grid. This is shortsighted. Certainly we need wind and solar and federal and state subsidies have also encouraged this, but power companies have not lobbied sufficiently for grid research. Consequently, policymakers and funding entities assume that grid-related research is either unimportant or not that difficult, and this is not the case.
3) Strengthen the link between technology R&D and policymaking
The interrelationship between technology R&D and policymaking is very significant, especially in such a highly regulated enterprise as the country’s power system. Yet the link between technology and policy is weak right now, making it very difficult for industry to turn its R&D into actual deployments. Just a small number of technical people have a say in the policy arena, and this is not good. Lack of informed technical input into the policymaking process often creates policies that are based on expectations that cannot be met. Policymaking would be much more effective if more technical people were involved instead of just politicians, lawyers, and economists.
For example, the Obama administration has been keen to increase the amount of renewable energy on the power grid. But we have seen that increases in wind generation in the northwest, for example, have created new difficulties in coordinating the availability of wind with available water resources. This was not anticipated and illustrates how regulations can be implemented without actually considering technical issues that might crop up.
The interrelationship is recognized by both federal and state governments but the fragmented regulatory system in the U.S. makes it difficult to facilitate the required changes in policies. Moreover, closing the gap between technological progress and institutional issues will require closer coordination between the researchers and the policymakers. I think you'll see more of this taking place. The Grid Tech Team at DoE, for example, has recommended that the department’s R&D should work hand-in-hand with policy to push the grid forward. Private industry should follow this lead and step up its efforts to get involved with policymaking organizations.
Anjan Bose, an IEEE Smart Grid Technical Expert and an IEEE Fellow, is well-known for his research on the operation and control of the electric power grid. He is a Regents professor and distinguished professor of electric power engineering at Washington State University. Recently, he served as a senior advisor to the undersecretary of energy at the Department of Energy and as a member of DOE’s Grid Tech Team.