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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Daniel Kirschen

Daniel S. Kirschen was an IEEE Distinguished Lecturer in 2009 and Chair of the IEEE Power and Energy Society, Computer and Analytical Methods Subcommittee from 2004-2009. In 2011 Daniel was appointed Close Professor of Electrical Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle. From 1994 to 2010, he was Professor of Electrical Energy Systems and Head of the Electrical Energy and Power Systems research group at the University of Manchester (previously UMIST) in the U.K.

Daniel Kirschen speaks about Smart Grid’s important role in combating climate change and how its technology can help people adopt new energy saving lifestyles.

Question: How do you define Smart Grid?

For a long time, providing electricity to the people essentially involved trying to balance the economics of providing it with the need for reliability. Today, because we have to do something about global warming, we now have to deal with the introduction of renewables. The need to be green has added a third dimension to the equation. Smart Grid’s role is to introduce new information technologies, in a very broad sense, that help establish a better balance between those three objectives.

Question: What are the biggest challenges to be encountered in actually building Smart Grid?

Well, there is a lot of interest in the technologies we could use to build Smart Grid. And there are a lot of smart engineers out there ready to do it. The real challenge lies in recognizing that this is not going to be free. Smart Grid is going to cost quite a bit of money, so we have to make sure that we deliver something that consumers will value enough to want to pay for it. One of the challenges this presents is making sure that we can justify those investments and make them wisely.

Question: Do you think the world will actually realize Smart Grid and how long will it take?

I don’t think it’s going to be like putting a man on the moon, or, something as easy as opening a box and saying, “Okay we have done that, let’s move on to something else.” It’s going to be something that is going to take quite a while and it will keep going for a number of years as we try to do it better. It is a long process making the power system greener, more economical and more reliable.

Question: Question: Are you working on any Smart Grid pilots?

The University of Washington—Seattle is a partner in the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid demonstration, which is one of the largest, if not the largest, Smart Grid demonstration in the country. On campus, we have many activities related to Smart Grid. We are installing a number of Smart Meters in academic buildings and student dorms to help people to do a better job of managing their electricity consumption.

The meters show people the amount of energy they are consuming, which in turn encourages them to reduce their usage. The more challenging part of this demonstration will be seeing if we can use some kind of signals to further encourage a reduction in consumption. There are no real results to report yet, because the demonstration is still in the process of installing the Smart Meters and the rest of the infrastructure.

Question: What is the most important message about Smart Grid that needs to be communicated now?

The message that something has to be done, because we cannot continue with the grid that we have. It needs to be modernized and improved and integrated with more renewable energy so we can deal with climate change. Accomplishing that modernization is going to take work and it is not going to be free.

Question: Do you think that message needs to be communicated a little differently to all of the different stakeholders?

Yes, I think you need to talk differently to consumers, who have a rather remote relationship with the power system, than you do to the utilities that run it on a daily basis. For utilities, the message is obviously going to be more technical. And regulators have to have a long-term perspective on the power system and understand that it’s going to cost us some money to make it happen. Everything has to be done wisely and you have to give utilities and the other people involved all of the information they need to make it happen.

Question: How will our lives change as a result of Smart Grid?

Hopefully, they will change very little from the perspective of a residential consumer. If we don’t make Smart Grid’s introduction almost transparent to the user, it’s probably not going to happen. I think the biggest impact it will have on our lives is the ability to integrate more renewable energy into the grid and, therefore, help us deal with climate change. That alone would have an enormous impact on all of us.

Question: What do you envision when you look at the Smart Grid in the future?

I think it’s going to be a long challenging road, especially for engineers. I also think we are going to have to be creative all along the way to make it happen.

Daniel Kirschen received his PhD EE and MSEE from the University of Wisconsin—Madison, and his Ingénieur Civil Mécanicien Electricien (Electro-mechanical Engineer) degree from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. As a university professor, he conducts research and educates new and experienced engineers about Smart Grid technologies. He also helps to establish relationships between people who are interested in moving Smart Grid forward.