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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Smart Grid 101 with Erich Gunther

By Erich W. Gunther, IEEE Fellow and Chairman and CTO EnerNex

The electrical grid has been described as the most complex machine ever built. It has also been described as a system that Thomas Edison would recognize because many of the components are fundamentally the same as they were in his day. The next-generation smart grid is bringing about both evolutionary and revolutionary impacts.

An Application-oriented Approach to Defining a Smart Grid

What are some of the key characteristics that most people would agree might constitute a smarter grid?

The smart grid effectively merges electrical and intelligence infrastructure, making use of communications, computing and power electronics to create a system that is:

  • self-healing and adaptive (interactive with consumers and markets);
  • optimized to make best use of resources and equipment;
  • predictive rather than reactive, to prevent emergencies;
  • distributed across geographical and organizational boundaries;
  • integrated, merging monitoring, control, protection, maintenance, energy and distribution management systems (EMS and DMS), marketing and IT, and
  • more secure from attack.

In this way, the smart grid figures to enable capabilities not originally foreseen when the legacy facility for electricity delivery was conceived. A smart grid could support applications selected from hundreds of potential applications that are prioritized based on local conditions and policies. These might include:

  • real-time simulation and contingency analysis,
  • distributed generation and alternate energy sources,
  • self-healing wide-area protection and islanding,
  • asset management and on-line equipment monitoring,
  • demand response and dynamic pricing and
  • participation in energy markets.

That’s a compelling vision. To realize its promise, the smart grid demands system-of-systems engineering; impeccable reliability, security and information privacy; interoperability and scalability and configuration and network management across a sprawling array of legacy and next-generation elements.

How can the multitude of systems in the utility enterprise be cost-effectively integrated and maintained to achieve the expected business objectives and support regulatory policy goals? Utilities traditionally tend to develop intelligent systems in isolation; for example, systems for either AMR or participation in energy markets are typically built without systems for the other application in mind. Integration, then, is considered after the fact—and the iterative process yields significant costs at every step along the way.

Concepts developed by the Electric power Research Institute (EPRI) through their IntelliGrid program are intended to help ensure that integration projects moving forward are engineered to take legacy systems into account, use standards to establish well-defined points of interoperability and eliminate vendor lock-in through these and other architectural concepts that permit the use of best-of-breed applications from multiple vendors. Such a holistic approach offers a better way. Standardized interfaces are defined first; strategies for smart grid security and network management are incorporated from the start. While the initial costs might be a bit more than for “one-off” integration, the overall system-wide, lifecycle costs are much lower as new applications can be built directly to the new architecture and adaptation to legacy systems is planned in advance.

In this way, evolutionary deployment builds on the intelligence of existing, locally optimized systems that can be enhanced with communications and distributed decision-making to create larger, more intelligent systems that address a wider range of problems and support multiple optimization strategies. This allows utilities to start with existing systems, progressively link them together and add new knowledge and technologies to create new intelligent systems with wider scope and greater adaptability.

Smart Grid Conceptual Model

The Smart Grid Conceptual Model developed by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines seven dimensions of how electric power infrastructure is connected electrically, financially and informationally in the emerging smart grid. Whereas the conceptual model of the traditional grid consists of generation, transmission and distribution of electricity, the NIST smart-grid model has evolved to also include consumption, markets, operations and service providers. This serves as a mechanism to build a common language that spans the various technical disciplines.

The distribution and consumer domains are being impacted most in these early stages of global smart-grid rollout, by advances in communications, control and computing technology as well as by regulatory policy.

Automation is utterly transforming the distribution domain, for example. Before the rise of distribution automation, less than 5 percent of distribution substations were automated; no devices on the distribution feeder were automated; the grid’s distribution system was operated manually with AutoCAD-generated, wall-mounted switching diagrams from specific locations. Outage/workforce management systems (OMS/WFMS) were not in place. Today, technology for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) has grown to provide the operational foundation for distribution automation across substations, distribution feeders and other discrete locations. The various components of distribution automation (wide-area radio communications and remote terminal units, for example) work together to deliver benefits that are both quantifiable (reduction of operating and maintenance costs, increased revenues and deferred capital expenditures) and qualitative (greater customer value of reliability and higher customer satisfaction).

The smart grid envisions taking distribution automation even further. A next-generation integrated distribution management system (IDMS) could leverage a single user interface and near-real-time incremental update of electronic switching diagrams to support advanced applications for enhanced operational decision-making, system-wide analysis and operation and dramatic improvements in distribution-system efficiency.

The smart grid is dependent on advanced application analysis, and advanced application analysis is dependent on feeder intelligence. Distribution-automation applications and line-post sensors facilitate the recovery of feeder intelligence, and automation technology facilitates the communication of feeder intelligence to the advanced application analysis tools. In these ways, distribution automation is no less than a foundational technology to build upon to achieve the smart grid.

The customer domain is a source of even greater area of innovation for the business of electricity.

While utilities obviously have sold electricity to customers in many ways for more than 100 years, they historically have had very little visibility into how individual customers actually use electricity. And while customers have used products and services, they have little concept or recognition of electricity use or value. And while products and services have used electricity to function, they have been engineered with little concept of how and when to conserve.

Consequently, the next-generation smart grid promises a distinct break from the past. Over the next decades, the smart grid will usher in dramatic and obvious change across the customer domain: appliances that “do the right thing;” substantially increased electric usage awareness and understanding among customers (and, in turn, modification of consumption behavior); home automation driven by both desire for comfort and need/incentive to conserve; integration of solar and wind distributed-generation sources at the home, and proliferation of electric vehicles and distributed storage technologies.

Interoperability Standards

Interoperability is required in layers throughout the NIST Smart Grid Conceptual Model in order for its potential to be fully realized. Interoperability can be defined as “the ability of two or more networks, systems, devices, applications, or components to communicate and operate together effectively, securely, and without significant user intervention.” In the emerging smart grid, there must exist organizational interoperability across policy, business objectives and business procedures; informational interoperability across business context and semantic understanding, technical interoperability (syntactic, network and connectivity) and interoperability across cross-cutting issues such as security, resource identification and time synchronization.

Standards are a crucial element in achieving such interoperability, of course. Use of standards avoids re-inventing the wheel, allowing stakeholders to learn from industry best practices, to specify requirements more easily, to reduce integration costs and prevent single-vendor “lock-in.” They also avail smart-grid manufacturers to much larger markets, as the solutions they build in one region can be sold and utilized in others.

Many of the standards that the global smart-grid effort will need are already there. Indeed, IEEE ( has an array of more than 100 active standards or standards in development with relevance to the smart grid.

The range of stakeholders, considerations and applicable standards is very large and complex. For interoperability standardization to propel the smart-grid effort forward, it is critical that standards development and adoption must consider the current state of ongoing deployment, technology development that is in progress and vendor product-development lifecycles. Also, interoperability is generally being discussed too broadly; focus should be placed on prioritization and acceleration of the adoption of “inter-system” standards.

A formal governance structure at a national level, involving both government and industry, with associated formal processes to prioritize and oversee the highest value tasks, is necessary. NIST and the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) are leading the way in these areas.


These are but a few of the issues that newcomers to the smart-grid space must understand with regard to the transformation that is coming with the global rollout of the smart grid. Any of the topics discussed in this article demands substantially more study and discussion; security, for example, is among the singlemost-talked-about issues in the smart grid, spanning principles of confidentiality (keeping private data private), availability (ensuring authorized users and process can do their job) and integrity (making sure that what is measured is reported and what is sent is received in an unaltered state), among others. Also, the business side of grid modernization is at least as complex as the smart grid’s engineering transformation.

The first step, however, is understanding the basics of what the smart grid is and portends to be. With the smart grid bringing in so many newcomers to the power space, a knowledge of the evolutionary and revolutionary changes from the traditional grid is necessary.

Erich Gunther, member of the IEEE Smart Grid Task Force, chairman of the IEEE PES (Power & Energy Society) Intelligent Grid Coordinating Committee, an IEEE PES Governing Board Member and chairman and Chief Technology Officer of EnerNex, offers insight on the challenges and benefits of Smart Grid implementation.