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The United States Vision for a Smart Electric Grid

bridges vol. 27, October 2010 / Feature Article

By Kenneth Wacks

The United States Congress has passed important energy policy laws mandating improvements in the distribution of electricity. To facilitate this process, the US Department of Energy established the GridWise® Architecture Council, consisting of 13 experts from the US and Europe who understand the business and technology of the utility, information, and communications industries.

The mission of the GridWise Architecture Council is to provide strategic direction toward a smart grid for the utility and equipment-supplier industries, covering the scope shown in Figure 1. Information about the work of the Council is available at www.gridwiseac.org.

Figure 1 - The GridWise Scope


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Drivers of utility change

Many problems and pressures are driving utilities toward the expanded systems view of the GridWise Architecture Council.  Among these are:

  • Business issues
    • Ensure the reliability of electricity resources for a strong economy and for data security
    • Expand the electricity supply while dealing with public resistance to building large generating plants and concerns about environmental pollution including greenhouse gases
    • Enable more robust competitive markets, in part by better interaction and collaboration among power users and power suppliers
  • System issues
    • Provide a more efficient, resilient, and reliable grid
    • Adjust demand to meet supply limitations through residential, commercial, and industrial demand-response systems
    • Manage the anticipated demands for electricity by electric vehicles.
  • Renewable issues
    • Integrate consumer and utility-generated power. Consumer generation includes renewable sources such as wind and solar that fluctuate with changes in the weather and time-of-day
    • Accommodate local power storage and locally generated power that is sold back to the utility.

The GridWise view

The electric utility has traditionally spanned generators, transmission lines (steel tow-ers), distribution lines (electric wires on poles and underground to homes, buildings, and factories), and electric meters, as shown in Figure 2.  Beyond the meter has been the domain of customers using electrical equipment for industrial, commercial, and residential applications.

Figure 2 - The Traditional Electric Grid

The GridWise view expands the domain of the electricity system to include enddevices and incorporates information and communications technology (ICT), as illustrated in Figure 3.  ICT is expected to revolutionize planning and operation of the power grid just as it has changed business, education, and entertainment.  The GridWise Architecture Council is providing tools for the electric industry to create a "smart grid" by embracing high-tech in order to reap the benefits of innovative products.

Figure 3 - The Electric Smart Grid

A smart grid supports interactions between the utility domain and end-devices (such as heating and cooling equipment) by incorporating ICT and e-commerce.  Distributed intelligent devices are interconnected via utility, home, and building networks. This requires a fundamental shift in electric utility system engineering and management. The tasks are challenging because incorporating ICT into the electric grid adds complexity.  Nevertheless, the Council envisions the emergence of an E+I (electricity + information) infrastructure.

The GridWise framework for utilities

The GridWise Architecture Council is developing framework tools for the utility industry. The GridWise framework helps organize concepts so that interoperability issues among the electricity components can be identified and addressed. Interoperability has important economic benefits:

  • Lower equipment costs
  • Lower transaction costs
  • Higher productivity through automation
  • More conversion of data and information into insight
  • Equipment substitution and upgrades
  • Increased competition among equipment suppliers.

Interoperability depends on interfaces among devices. The technology for implementing interoperability ranges from fully custom interfaces to fully automatic, socalled "plug-and-play," as illustrated in Figure 4.  Plug-and-play can be aided by standards and a common structural syntax using tools such as XML

Figure 4 - Degrees of Interoperability

Interoperability facilitates systems integration, provided that the following challenges are addressed:

  • Develop interface agreements at the boundaries of system components, especially if designed by different companies
  • Establish boundaries of authority set by regulatory, political, or business policy. Examples include privacy, power quality, and a common identification scheme for system components
  • Decentralize decision-making: Move from a traditional hierarchy for decisions to autonomous decisions by software agents
  • Depend on relevant standards and open systems, rather than proprietary specifications.

The impact of GridWise

The GridWise Architecture Council framework, built around the achievement of interoperability, is intended to impact the electric industry significantly.  As outlined in the following table, the framework for interoperability affects organizations, information, and technology.

Impact of GridWise
Economic and regulatory
Business objectives
Business procedures
Incorporation of new information into business practices
Understanding of data so it is meaningful information
Decoding of messages received into useful data
Exchange of messages using a common message structure
Communications protocol for in-terconnecting electricity network components

The future electric utility

The electric utility industry is investing significant capital to improve the grid and the market for electricity.  The GridWise Architecture Council intends to guide utilities toward wise investments that benefit from interoperability.  The greatest impact from interoperability will occur when communications from the grid to buildings and equipment enable automatic interaction between energy users and the electric grid.

GridWise is not an engineering team developing energy products, but a team of ex-perts rethinking the system for generating, distributing, and using energy.  The GridWise Architecture Council is convinced that the creation of an interoperability platform for the grid will encourage innovations and services to enhance the electric system by adding value while driving down the cost of electricity.

© Copyright 2010 Kenneth P. Wacks


The author, Ken Wacks, is a member of the GridWise Architecture Council of the United States Department of Energy.

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