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Lessons Learned from Field Deployments

Every day, our understanding of the smart grid as a "system of systems" evolves and improves and, therefore, so does the smart grid. Few things, if any, have helped foster our understanding more than the lessons learned through actual field deployments.

Although individual components of the smart grid are thoroughly tested before installation, it has been discovered that some component technology may not be ready for primetime when it comes to being integrated into a solution. Often, these components do not interoperate well within the overall system, resulting in costly and time-consuming field re-engineering or upgrading.

Interoperability Is Key

Each of the components of an integrated solution must perform according to its specifications. If any component underperforms, the entire solution underperforms. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Take the case of monitoring the health of a critical bulk-power transmission transformer. The components include the sensors in or on the transformer, the monitoring and diagnostic equipment connected to the transformer, the two-way communications between the transformer and the maintenance office, and the master station in the maintenance office. Bearing in mind that temperature variations affect the technology, when the monitoring and diagnostic equipment fails due to immature technology, the entire transformer monitoring solution fails.

Or consider, as a second case, Phasor Measurement Units, Phasor Data Concentrators (PDCs), two-way communications between the PDCs and the control center, and the Wide Area Measurement System (WAMS) in the control center. When the PDC fails because it cannot handle the amount and speed of synchrophasor data being sent to it, the entire WAMS solution fails.

The lesson learned is that integration and interoperability of each component in the system must be achieved to help ensure smart grid success. Testing an individual component is relatively easy, but extensive, end-to-end laboratory testing of components functioning within an operational system is mandatory prior to implementation to fully understand component capabilities and to help ensure interoperability before deployment as part of a larger solution. To develop an array of effective "plug and play" components, we must adopt—and insist upon—open standards and an open architecture methodology.

More than Compliance to Standards

Compliance to standards does not in itself guarantee interoperability. Coordinating software functionality with hardware from multiple suppliers has proved challenging. To ensure components successfully work together, they must not only comply with the same standard but have been tested for interoperability; especially if from different suppliers.

Imagine a utility with a SCADA/EMS (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition/Energy Management System) from supplier X. This utility purchases an Optimal Power Flow software application from supplier Y and wants to integrate it into supplier X's EMS. Typically, however, this is not possible because the EMS has a proprietary, real-time database structure. But if both suppliers have incorporated the Common Information Model (IEC 61968/61970) into their system and software application, the software application will successfully integrate with the system.

To take another example, suppose a utility is implementing voltage/VAR control on its distribution feeders, where the logic resides in the substation. The substation controller communicates with the feeder-based intelligent capacitor bank controller using the DNP3 communications protocol (IEEE 1815). But the substation controller is from supplier X and the intelligent capacitor bank controller is from supplier Y. Though they both use the DNP3 communications protocol, they cannot talk with each other because there are incompatibilities in the implementation of the protocol by both suppliers, which would have been identified and resolved if interoperability testing had been done. In this case, field re-engineering is needed to correct the incompatibilities.

Niche suppliers, though they provide valuable components and technologies, may have small engineering staffs that do not have the resources or familiarity to fully adopt and employ industry-wide standards, resulting in a lack of system interoperability.

Building long-term alliances with larger suppliers that have the resources to fully embrace industry-wide standards, while maintaining a holistic view of the overall solution, can help minimize interoperability issues. Larger suppliers also generally have engineering resources to provide field support, obviating the need to engage third-party field support; retaining third parties may open a can of worms, in that they may not be familiar with the components or solutions that need re-engineering or upgrading. Rework, after all, is expensive and time consuming.

Packaged solutions from a defined group of strategically aligned suppliers will help improve coordination and interoperability of smart grid systems. These suppliers can work together to enhance equipment interoperability requirements, collaborate to resolve system problems and develop documentation to improve personnel training.

Build a Collaborative Management Team

Coordinating multiple suppliers as well as multiple internal departments within a utility—such as substation management, distribution engineering and communications—has posed significant challenges. Collaboration is needed not only to develop technical standards but to effectively manage and steer smart grid projects as well.

Building an "A team" with the technical and project expertise to work collaboratively to identify and solve challenges is essential. Engaging a project manager with multi-disciplinary authority for each smart grid solution can help utilities enhance departmental collaboration and interoperability efforts within the organization and when working with external vendors.

Establishing a program management office to oversee multiple project managers can help ensure adherence to overall program guidelines, including communications, status reporting and risk management. Also, an interdisciplinary corporate steering committee—consisting of key stakeholders within the utility and within an alliance of suppliers—can essentially function as a "traffic cop" to direct project deployment in a controlled and timely manner while helping to mitigate risk.

Share Lessons Learned

Smart grid solutions involve a multitude of stakeholders, including residential and commercial customers, utilities and strategic suppliers. Sharing information among all stakeholders is critical to success. An enormous amount of data is compiled every day from projects around the world, delivering new insights about equipment performance, system interoperability, new successes and new challenges. Lessons need to be shared with all stakeholders so that data turn into knowledge that is actionable to help utilities, suppliers and consumers build on past successes and avoid potential pitfalls. The development of "use cases" for each component and system is an effective means of disseminating lessons learned from deployments. Use cases can provide specific studies of how users interact with a system, besides giving a detailed description of a scenario. They can also define benefits, actors, functional requirements, business rules and assumptions.

The Lessons Continue

The smart grid is a new, complex and expansive system, and with each new project comes a new set of experiences and a new set of lessons to be learned. Adherence to industry standards and interoperability testing is critical for successful operations and performance success. As we continue to develop, test and deploy smart grid solutions, we will continue to learn lessons that we can build upon to improve our performance and the performance of a smarter grid.


  • John McdonaldJohn D. McDonald is an IEEE Fellow, an IEEE Smart Grid technical expert, a past president of the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) and past chair of the IEEE PES Substations Committee.

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About the Smart Grid Newsletter

A monthly publication, the IEEE Smart Grid Newsletter features practical and timely technical information and forward-looking commentary on smart grid developments and deployments around the world. Designed to foster greater understanding and collaboration between diverse stakeholders, the newsletter brings together experts, thought-leaders, and decision-makers to exchange information and discuss issues affecting the evolution of the smart grid.


Jinyu WenJinyu Wen is the vice dean of the College of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China ... Read more


Haibo HeHaibo He is a faculty member in the Department of Electrical, Computer and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Rhode Island... Read more


John McdonaldJohn D. McDonald is Director of Technical Strategy and Policy Development with GE Energy’s Digital Energy business. In this role, he sets and drives ... Read more


Saifur RahmanSaifur Rahman is the founding director of the Advanced Research Institute at Virginia Tech, where he is the Joseph R. Loring professor of electrical ... Read more


Manisa PipattanasompornManisa Pipattanasomporn is an assistant professor at the Advanced Research Institute. She is working on multiple research grants ... Read more


Rahul TongiaRahul Tongia (IEEE Member) is principal research scientist at the Center for Study of Science, Technology, and Policy (CSTEP), a Bangalore-based ... Read more