The Convergence of High-Tech and So-Called Low-Tech
- Written by Erich Gunther
The differences between the smart grid and the traditional grid are often described as high-tech versus low-tech. The real difference is between a highly optimized, slow-changing energy infrastructure and still developing, fast changing communications technologies. Integrating them is the challenge.
The need to move from the grid as we have known it for the last hundred years or so to what we have been calling the "smart grid" can be characterized in many ways, including the view that we are merging old, brute stupid, low technology with new, super whiz-bang computer-driven high technology. A problem with this characterization is that it considers technology that is mature, works with high reliability, and is therefore almost invisible to the everyday person as somehow "low-tech." In fact, the traditional electric power infrastructure is extremely high-tech in almost every sense of the word.
We generate, transmit, distribute, and utilize massive amounts of energy at high efficiency through the application of fundamental and yet extremely complex laws of physics that engineers have harnessed in elegant and easily implemented ways for over a century. The community of engineers who understand the basic electromagnetic field theory, control theory, and other relevant physics, engineering, and mathematics is extremely small. Yet those disciplines are the foundation of how generators, transformers, transmission lines, breakers, vacuum switches, and other power systems equipment operate to provide power to billions of people the world over. The technology we depend on is actually so high-tech and well optimized that it only appears to be low-tech.
We need to focus now on how we manage the integration of the stable, mature, highly optimized, slow changing technologies that constitute the existing grid with the new, more volatile, fast changing technologies in the communications, computing, command, and control arenas. Both classes of technology are high-tech, but they are at different levels of maturity, are changing at quite different rates, and have different roles to play in a business case or business model.
In today’s world of emerging smart grid applications, we are looking for new and innovative ways to support the high technology embedded in our classic power systems infrastructure with advanced communications and computing technology. Once we realize this, we can apply systems engineering and engineering economics discipline to develop a strategy for merging these two forms of technology to meet the technical, environmental, social, and business requirements associated with smart grid applications. To do this, we need new business models in utility infrastructure companies, be they generation, transmission, distribution, or consumer services companies.
No longer can we make do with what is sometimes called the “silo” based approach of managing the business. Engineering and business optimizations must occur across traditional organizational silos. By the same token, architecture of the systems implementing smart grid applications must use techniques that manage technology change that occurs at different rates in the systems.
The basics of an integrated, multiple technology, systems-of-systems engineering approach was first proposed by the participants and developers in EPRI’s IntelliGrid program (and its predecessor – CEIDS/IECSA) in the early 2000s. This approach has been slowly gaining momentum, with notable large-scale applications of the methodology, such as Southern California Edison’s AMI and smart grid projects. Since then, these concepts have found their way into the foundational principles of other utility projects and national efforts such as the NIST Smart Grid Roadmap and the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP).
The IEEE is playing a significant role in facilitating this change of approach through the application of the NIST Conceptual Model in the IEEE Smart Grid Portal by formally coordinating the work of all societies in smart grid and by coordinating smart grid standards activity within the Power and Energy Society through its Intelligent Grid Coordinating Committee.
We have a lot of work ahead to implement new thinking and new business models and to attract new engineers with new ideas into the smart grid world. But I am optimistic that we have a good technical foundation in place to leverage current regulatory policy and political drivers and foster exponential progress in the years to come.