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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Jim Prendergast

Dr. E. James Prendergast, IEEE Executive Director

Our next Smart Grid expert is Dr. E. James Prendergast, IEEE Executive Director who is working with members of President Obama’s Cabinet as part of the smart grid initiative leadership team, views smart grid as a journey not a destination. During this video interview at the IEEE Smart Grid World Forum, James explores how various nations throughout the world are going to approach that journey in different ways. He also discusses the crucial need for standards.


Smart grid is one of the biggest changes that we're going to see in our lifetime. It's analogous to the change that we saw in data communications over the last 20 or 30 years. The future is going to be very different from the past in terms of how we get energy, how we efficiently use energy, and how we distribute energy.


If I think about smart grid, smart grid is not a destination. It's a journey. If you look at the various nations throughout the world, they're all going to approach that journey in a different way. What the IEEE can offer is intelligence, information. It can offer roadmaps. It can offer recommended paths for that journey. Hopefully, it will allow various nations who really have to take different paths because of their current infrastructure, it will allow them to optimize their way forward.


If you look at, take for example, India, the electricity system in India I would call it ad hoc. One of their biggest issues is that they sometimes have to bring down parts of the infrastructure because of the load issues. They really have demands that have significantly outpaced their supply. The way that they're going to solve that problem can't be the way that it was traditionally done. There are just not enough resources to supply the future demand. They really have to look at smart grid as a way of solving that particular problem.

If you look at China, China has energy supplies which are far different from where the energy is used. So they have long transmission distances. They're looking at very high-voltage DC systems to reduce losses and solve their energy demand problems.

Brazil has similar issues. Brazil has, uses, or generates a lot of hydroelectric power that's typically a long way from the major cities in Brazil. They're trying to reduce their losses, which can be has high as 30% or 40% in transmission. Again, they're using smart transmission technology, HVDC systems to reduce those losses.

Singapore is looking at using much more green energy. Singapore has a real problem. They really don't have any significant supplies of energy internally. They generate most of their energy from oil, gasoline, and certainly that could be very expensive in the future. Also, for them, it's a security issue. So they're looking at green alternatives.


Well, the United States is affected by the individual states who control the utilities. So it's a very diverse system. It's not homogenous at all. As we look at smart grid, we can't run that type of diverse system. We have to have some commonalities, and we have to use standards. We have to link together the various states in a way that's never been done before.


I think there are a lot of analogies between Europe and the United States. Europe has the issues that the countries of Europe have, historically, run their own systems. As we look at a new smart grid system in Europe, those countries now have to be linked into a single, homogenous system that will efficiently move electricity around to supply the needs of the various regions.


Smart grid is a great example of the new interdisciplinary world in which we live. In the past, the various societies, like power and energy, communications, computing, tended to work independently. They had a very well-defined base. As we look to the future, it's much more consumer driven. We're looking at the end consumer, and the end consumer needs a system that intersects with all of these systems.

Particularly key to smart grid are the areas of horsepower and energy, which we're familiar with. But communications and computing, all of the IT infrastructure we'll need with this new smart grid is somewhat different to what the typical power and energy space has been used to. Security is also a big issue with the smart grid.


Standards are absolutely key. If I buy a product which was manufactured in Japan, I will want to make sure that it will be able to communicate with the grid, whether that grid is in Brazil or the United States or in Europe. The only way we're going to do that is through standards.

There will be some standards which, I think, will have to be worldwide standards, particularly at the consumer end. When we talk about standards for infrastructure transmission and distribution, I think there will be some localized modification of those standards to fit more with the needs of the various regions. Clearly, if we're going to have a low-cost solution, we're going to need standards.


I think one of the biggest issues we're going to face with smart grid is in fact this education of the public. I think, initially, unless we inform the end consumer that the smart grid is in their overall interest, there'll be push back. There'll be concerns that the utilities are trying to control them too much. There'll be concerns of who is going to pay for this smart grid. I think education is going to be absolutely key as we move forward.

Also, when I talk, education not just with the end consumer, it's also with governments, policy makers. They have to realize what the impact technology can have on their future and look at the long-term impact rather than some of the short-term costs.


There is an education pipeline issue particularly in the United States. It's also in Europe. Less so in Asia, but it's also starting to occur, you're starting to see this happen as in well in pockets in Asia.

I think what we have to do is make sure that we're part of the overall solution in making sure that students, high school students, pre-university students see engineering as an exciting career option for themselves and can look forward to a long and prosperous life in the engineering disciplines.

Recently, there have been a lot of problems with turnover in the engineering fields. I think we have to somehow counteract that with a vision for the future which is an exciting vision. Smart grid is actually, I think, an area where we can really attract new individuals into the engineering discipline, because I think everybody understands the impact of smart grid. They understand that it is also going to be a problem that will be with us for many decades to come.


Once again, the smart grid is not a destination. It's a journey. As we move along that journey, we will not only be further integrating our electricity system. I think we'll be bringing into that our other infrastructure systems, such as water, such as waste. You can do tradeoffs with these various systems. You can trade off water for electricity. You can trade off waste for electricity. It will become a much more integrated system in the future.


I think one of the interesting challenges of smart grid is that, particularly for an organization like IEEE, it's well beyond just a technical challenge. The IEEE understands the technical challenges. The smart grid is also a challenge for understanding how businesses operate, how governments operate, how policymakers operate, and it's not just in the technical domain that we have to succeed. We have to succeed in all of those other domains.

It's very interesting to see the positioning of the various governments. The EU, of course, has its position. China is now emerging as a powerhouse in the whole area of the smart grid. That's both an opportunity and a threat. The U.S. is moving forward with trying to met its particular needs. How all of this fits together, I think, is still very uncertain. The IEEE has to be part of the solution.