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Innovative Smart Grid Technologies


If you missed the IEEE Power & Energy Society’s 4th annual conference on Innovative Smart Grid Technologies in Washington, D.C., in late February, you should’ve been there.

Attendees were treated to rich content and diverse networking opportunities over a four-day period when cold, wet Washington weather made the proceedings the place to be for anyone interested in grid modernization – not just the many PES members in attendance.

The four-day affair had a global flavor with representatives from 32 nations, while domestic representation included PES officers and members, U.S. Department of Energy officials, executives from leading utilities, along with technology vendors, national laboratories, non-governmental organizations and academicians from around the U.S.

Public spaces at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel were abuzz all week as conferees gathered to renew friendships, make new acquaintances and exchange information and perspectives on global progress in grid modernization.

(Slides from the 27 panel sessions are available on the IEEE PES ISGT 2013 website, as are the dozens of papers presented during 18 poster sessions. PES members will recognize, however, that there’s no substitute for the value of hearing speakers in person, with the opportunity for collegial exchanges.)

Attendees were greeted on the opening day by Noel Schulz, current PES president and Paslay professor of electrical and computer engineering at Kansas State University, and Saifur Rahman, general chair of the conference and director of the Advanced Research Institute at Virginia Tech.

Schulz reminded her audience of PES’ mission to be “the leading provider of scientific and engineering information on electric power and energy for the betterment of society,” a mission accomplished in the days that followed. She also touched on PES priorities, including its work on standards, on persuading students to join the field, advancing professional networks for its membership and she announced a new PES publication, Electrification.

Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary at the U.S. DOE in the office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, delivered the opening keynote talk on “Grid Modernization and Resiliency,” after being introduced by George Arnold of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who also served as technical program chair of the conference.

Hoffman emphasized the importance of viewing the grid in its totality, not just its parts, and urged infrastructure investment today for “tomorrow’s grid,” the basis for economic vitality in an increasingly digital economy. She also touched on critical issues ranging from workforce development to customers to resiliency in the face of natural disasters and potential cyberattacks.

In a plenary panel that followed, Hoffman’s colleague Hank Kenchington, a deputy assistant secretary at U.S. DOE, underscored the magnitude of the investment challenge when he pointed out that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s 50 percent share of demonstration projects and investment grants pumped nearly $8 billion into grid modernization – while estimates of the investments needed over the next two decades range from $338 billion to $476 billion (EPRI) to as high as $880 billion (Brattle Group).

The investment challenge, of course, is intimately linked to the technology challenge, which was the primary focus of the ISGT conference. Many panels at the event were devoted to the lessons learned so far from ARRA-funded demonstration projects and investment grants, with utilities and their technology partners providing updates on their work, which is scheduled for completion over the next two years.

Kenchington referred his audience to progress reports on U.S. DOE-led, ARRA-funded smart grid projects at smartgrid.gov, a gateway for consumer information, federal research projects, programs and policies, as well as stakeholder resources.

Indeed, the ISGT conference was organized along similar lines, with three tracks of panels devoted to progress in smart grid deployment projects, smart grid demonstration projects and technology challenges.

Progress in the U.S. and abroad

Mark Wyatt, vice president of smart grid and energy systems for Duke Energy, provided the second day’s keynote address, on Duke’s progress in implementing advanced metering infrastructure and integrating distributed energy resources to improve revenue, defer capital expenditures and cut operations and maintenance costs. One theme that emerged: technology drives changes in business practices and the way people work.

“Don’t underestimate the need for change management,” Wyatt told the PES audience. “The requirements are just phenomenal.”

Professor Rahman, the conference chair, led the second day’s plenary session, which featured presenters from China, Japan, Sweden and Brazil.

Nelson Kagan from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, said that smart grid drivers in his country included revenue protection, operational costs and reliability, and described a “convergence of technologies” being implemented there, including smart meters and distribution automation. Kagan later led a panel of colleagues on the smart grid experience across Latin America. LinaBertlingTjernberg, professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, noted the 4th annual ISGT Europe conference will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark, October 6-9. She noted that Sweden’s biggest challenge is integrating large amounts of renewable energy with the grid. For Tang Yi, professor at Southeast University, described China’s grid modernization efforts in each of its six main regions, which include expanding the full range of generation sources and installing DC transmission lines. In Japan, according to panelist Kenji Iba of Waseda University in Tokyo, the challenge is developing a new generation mix in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. Technologies will include the gamut from fossil fuel generation to renewables and energy storage.

From lab to commercialization

Danielle Merfeld, technology director for electrical technologies and systems at GE Global Research, delivered the final day’s keynote, and described the process by which GE develops solutions to real-world challenges – a process often informed by its customers, she said.

Resilience is becoming more critical for the grid, not only due to extreme weather events related to climate change, but because modern humans live in a more “built environment” susceptible to damage, according to Merfeld. Increases in computing power over time and shrinking costs for semiconductors offer great promise for power electronics that can enable automation and its role in aiding resiliency, she said.

While the “three pillars” of smart grid technology development are technology, standards work and policy, Merfeld said, the big challenges lie in integrating distributed generation and accommodating two-way power flows in a system traditionally designed for a one-way flow of electrons.

Policy and how it might aid innovation provided the focus for the third day’s plenary session, moderated by Paul Centolella, a vice president with Analysis Group, who described himself as a “recovering regulator.” His panel included Commissioner Kelly Speakes-Backman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, which made news in 2010 by requiring two utilities under its purview to articulate the consumer value of smart grid projects they proposed. Commissioner Ann Berwick, chair of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities provided perspective from her state, while Nick Sinai, a senior advisor for innovation and entrepreneurship in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy provided energy policy perspective from the Obama Administration.