Technology companies are enlisting in steadily growing numbers in the smart grid campaign around the United States, and it may fall heavily on them to sustain momentum on this front until government policies take shape and consumers become believers.
Representatives of hardware, software and systems companies populated this week's four-day-long GridWeek conference in Washington, describing a growing demand for their services. Meanwhile utilities and grid operators in many parts of the country roll out smart grid plans or face the strains of handling growing amounts of variable wind and solar power.
"We're lining up the technologies," said Gerry Cauley, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the grid's operations monitor. Vendors are actively pursuing solutions to grid issues. Standards are being developed. A lot of the necessary building blocks are being put in place, he said.
"The distribution grid is evolving from a one-way network into a two-way network," said Craig M. Cavanaugh, senior manager of metering services for Siemens Energy Inc., as distributed generation slowly grows. The transition from one-way power dispatched from utilities to consumers, to the opportunities for consumers to put power back into the grid, creates challenges that cross utility, Internet, security and regulatory worlds, he said. It also creates opportunities for technology firms that have the right answers.
What grid technology companies see as opportunities, some grid managers see as urgent needs, as they confront the impact of renewable power on their systems.
Elliot Mainzer, executive vice president at the Bonneville Power Administration, described the operational pressures caused by the escalation of wind resources in the BPA system from 250 megawatts in 2005 to more than 3,000 megawatts currently.
That total could double, he said. "We have a very highly concentrated wind fleet," he explained, causing dramatic ramping of wind power that tests grid operators as never before. BPA's response ranges from investments in state-of-the-art wind forecasting to $108 million in phasor measurement equipment to provide instantaneous tracking of strains on its grid.
No solution yet for fluctuating power
Lee Krevat, smart grid director for San Diego Gas & Electric, noted that renewable power totals 14 percent of the system's generation capacity. By 2015 that number could approach 20 percent or more, as the utility continues to try to meet the nation's toughest state renewable standard.
A growing number of circuits in its system are carrying substantial amounts of solar power, whose up-and-down ramping events cause hair-raising voltage fluctuations and wear out grid protection systems.
By 2014, dozens of circuits will have 20 percent or more of their connection generation coming from solar power, he said. "We don't have a solution right now to mitigate that intermittency. In a year or two, it's not going to be tolerable." The technology solutions had better be there, he said.
Hanging over the conference was the reality that most consumers still don't know what the smart grid is or what benefits it promises to offset the rising costs of new meters, new grid operating equipment and new generation.
There is little consensus within the industry about how best to engage consumers in managing their electricity use to conserve energy and shift their usage to off-peak times when prices are lower, conference participants said.
"The money for the smart grid is predominantly on the utility side of the meter, and the ability to do grid management," said Bill Moroney, president of the Utilities Telecom Council. Consumers need to understand that the opportunities to conserve electricity through smart grid systems is much cheaper than building new generation plants, he said.
Michelle Mindaloa-Freeman, marketing vice president of smart meter manufacturer Landis+Gyr, said consumers do respond to the information smart grid systems provide of exactly how they use power, what drives their electricity bill and how they can do something about that.
'Enormous market' gets a reality check
Energy Department officials are counting on their smart grid and electric car demonstration projects to yield the evidence over several years that will convince consumers of the value of these innovations.
Spread across a floor of the Washington Convention Center were the displays of advanced meter manufacturers, utility systems integrators, energy storage developers and other technologies that make up the smart grid spectrum. Many were beneficiaries of $4.5 billion in DOE grants that have seeded deployments of advanced meters and smart grid demonstration projects in nearly every state.
"We are getting to a place where we understand the technology," said Paul DeMartini, chief technology officer of Cisco Systems and the former top smart grid executive at Southern California Edison. "We really are moving towards a 21st century grid."
The market is enormous in our opinion," said R. Blake Young, president of Comverge Inc., which creates demand response programs for consumers and energy management systems. "The stimulus obviously created -- I don't want to use the word artificial -- but certainly a 'pig in the python' phenomena, where you saw a lot of interest. We think that may subside a bit, but based on what we see for 2011 [is] very, very continuing interest."
"Utilities who were not recipients of stimulus dollars still have capacity issues to be resolved," he said. "It's easy to get into a heady, frothy discussion about smart grid. If you take more of a reality check, we're going to be a period of transition for decades. There is no end to the smart grid."
A second reality is the patchwork of state utility regulations affecting smart grid deployment and the long distance still to travel to harmonize federal and state regulation. "There are a lot of different smart grids" around the country, said Mark McGranaghan, director of smart grid research for the Electric Power Research Institute.
A 'lot of unknowns' remain
"There are a lot of unknowns," said George Arnold, national coordinator of smart grid standards development at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "The fact that we have 50 states is a great strength. ... We get to try a lot of things."
"There are innovative business models coming out of the states where the policy has been more progressive, and state regulators [have] allowed that to happen," said Cavanaugh. "The negative is that it creates an inherent inefficiency.
"That's going to continue to be a challenge going forward until we see additional alignment between the state and the federal," he added.
"You don't want 51 versions of standards" for smart grid technology, agreed DeMartini. "This isn't Baskin-Robbins. We need to make sure we have a unified approach."
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff illustrated that challenge in describing the complex path the commission must follow to put in place new standards to assure the interoperability of smart grid technologies and cyber protections.
Under Arnold, some 600 industry and institutional participants working through NIST have prepared a set of interoperability standards as required by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. The act authorized FERC to "adopt" the standards, but made no provision for FERC to enforce them.
Wellinghoff said FERC will follow its regular process of rulemaking in considering the NIST standards and can incorporate its final rule as mandatory through its relationship with NERC, a process that may take six months or more.
At the same time, FERC is meeting with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, representing state regulators, trying to get their buy-in to the standards. That, too, is a work in progress.