Smart Grid -- Starting at the generator, ending at the refrigerator

Q&A with IEEE's Saifur Rahman
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In this interview with FierceSmartGrid Editor Barbara Vergetis Lundin, Professor Saifur Rahman, founding director of the Advanced Research Institute at Virginia Tech, discusses the concept of smart grid and how to grow public awareness and acceptance of it.

Rahman is an IEEE Fellow and the vice president of the IEEE Power and Energy Society. He also directs the Center for Energy and the Global Environment at Virginia Tech.

Saifur Rahman

FierceSmartGrid:  There are many definitions of "smart grid" -- how do you define it?

Saifur Rahman: "Smart grid" is a concept with many elements -- it's not a physical thing. I like to say that a smart grid starts at the generator and ends at the refrigerator.

If we can monitor and control each element in the chain of generation, transmission, distribution and end-use we can make our electricity use more efficient. I mention efficiency right away because in the United States, for instance, 20 percent of the generation capacity is used only 5 percent of the time. If we can avoid that peak, 5 percent of the time usage, we don't need the 20 percent capacity sitting idle 95 percent of the time. So one smart grid element is improved capacity utilization.

Another element is its ability to balance supply and demand in real-time by monitoring the load and redistributing electricity among end-users according to need. That way, no single home would cause an overload problem by turning everything on at the same time, beyond available capacity. Today, to avoid that, we keep significant capacity idle -- at great cost.

Let's be clear: I'm not saying the power company or somebody outside my home is going to control my life. The power company should stop at my "front door," which is the electric meter. What I do inside my home is my business. At Virginia Tech, we're working on technology that would allow the homeowner to set priorities among critical loads and for those loads to operate more efficiently whenever the utility sent a signal it needed to reduce load.

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The consumer is a sleeping giant. Once you can demonstrate for the consumer that things can be done differently, they are willing to think differently.
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FierceSmartGrid:  Despite progress on grid modernization, it appears that the public and other stakeholders need to understand that we're in an early phase of an ongoing process. Do you agree?

SR: That's true. In fact, in my lectures I use a pyramid to illustrate the meaning of "smart grid." At the top is technology. The layer below is standards. Below that are rates and regulations. The foundation of that pyramid is public awareness and acceptance. We have work to do on that part. Unless we are successful in that endeavor, the rest will not matter. 

FierceSmartGrid:  What sort of efforts will grow that public awareness and acceptance?

SR: It's a slow process. First, people are not willing to spend more money than they must. That's common sense. Early adopters will spend money just to see what's possible, but that's not everybody.

So I would promote the notion that laying the technical foundations for a smarter grid enables monitoring and control, which in turn lead to efficiencies. That serves the consumer -- who pays for the system -- because it avoids the model of the past, in which we built over-capacity to serve peaks loads that occur only 5 percent of the time.  

A second issue that should make our case easier to convey is Hurricane Sandy's destruction in New York and New Jersey this past fall. If you look at the $50 billion reconstruction fund that Congress just approved, 80 percent of that money is for infrastructure, which is a good thing. And the governors of New York and New Jersey realize that we have to approach reconstruction in a new way. In some cases, they will build new infrastructure from the ground up. Smart grid concepts should be considered as building blocks, both in rebuilding infrastructure and promoting awareness that a smarter grid is less costly in the long run. It should be pointed out that in the aftermath of such a destructive event, we could end up paying a lot more for repairs than we would for a more resilient grid.

The consumer is a sleeping giant. Once you can demonstrate for the consumer that things can be done differently, they are willing to think differently. Hurricane Sandy and other storms that have struck the East Coast in the last couple of years have shown the sort of havoc that comes with the loss of power.

FierceSmartGrid:  Do you see other avenues to public awareness?

SR: Another avenue is education at the primary school level. For example, if you can give elementary school teachers a demonstration, a slideshow or a video clip, the kids will go home, talk to their parents and the parents will realize it makes sense. They'll learn, too. The younger the group you reach, the more willing they are to learn and to accept new ideas.

FierceSmartGrid:  Hurricane Sandy also underscored that systems cannot be built cost-effectively to withstand massive physical destruction. That underscores both resiliency and a role for the end-user. Would you agree?

SR: Systems will fail no matter what. Given that understanding, what can end-users do to ensure that loads critical to their survival are served? Distributed energy sources -- perhaps solar photovoltaics in urban areas, wind turbines in rural areas -- could provide the power and energy storage could provide the buffer for emergencies. Citizens have a role to play. They need to explore the possibilities so they are not left in the dark. Now people have a metric by which to judge the value of uninterrupted power. They're starting to realize that, for instance, rooftop solar could keep their critical, low-power appliances running in an emergency. Everyone has a role to play. If the system fails, we cannot just complain.

FierceSmartGrid:  You are serving as the general chair for IEEE PES' Innovative Smart Grid Technologies (ISGT) 2013 conference, which has an international flair. Why is this important?

SR: We are bringing global, smart grid implementation issues to the attention of attendees from 29 countries. Through panels and paper sessions we'll examine how various technologies have been deployed in different countries and the lessons learned of the host utilities, government agencies, vendors and consultants.

The international perspective is important. In Japan, for instance, they are exploring very specific applications for monitoring the performance of the distribution network in Tokyo City, which is much more densely populated than many U.S. cities. Knowing how the Japanese have approached issues such as microgrid-level power conditioning means the rest of us do not have to reinvent solutions to these problems down the road. The conference is also a networking opportunity for attendees to share ideas on their specific challenges.

FierceSmartGrid:  Is it important to emphasize that infrastructure renewal and grid modernization is critical to the economy and economic growth, particularly in a globally competitive environment?

SR: Indeed. We are becoming more dependent on electricity, not just for heating, cooling and cooking, but for many other instruments of productivity that support our lifestyles, such as laptop computers, the Internet, cell phones, most which didn't exist 20 years ago. That means we need not only electricity; we need very high-quality electricity all the time. We must think differently than we have in the past about how best to provide it and how to use it.

FierceSmartGrid:  What are you working on at Virginia Tech?

SR: I mentioned the need to enable end-users to prioritize loads and enable new efficiencies within the appliances themselves when the utility sends a signal. Under a grant from the National Science Foundation and contracts with the Department of Defense, we are exploring how to do this by enabling the homeowner to make these decisions.

Many utilities, including my local power company, Dominion Virginia Power, have direct load control programs that -- with the homeowner's permission -- turn off your air conditioner on very hot summer days, when peak load exceeds the system's capacity. Typically, the utility offers a modest payment. Cooperating is the right thing to do, but at times that can be inconvenient. 

If instead the power company said, "Save us four kilowatts," and I'm equipped with a home energy management system (HEMS), I could prioritize the major loads in my home and perhaps trigger more efficient cycles for some of them. The pre-programmed HEMS will find and manage these savings without sacrificing my comfort or convenience.

The principle is simple: I want the power company to tell me how much load relief it needs, but not to tell me how I should do it. How I run my home is my business. That's the difference between traditional direct load control and how we'll do things going forward. I think people will embrace this idea because it answers objections about privacy and autonomy.

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