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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Saifur Rahman

Saifur Rahman is an IEEE Fellow. He also serves as Vice President of the IEEE Power & Energy Society. He is the Joseph R. Loring Professor at Virginia Tech's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Saifur Raman's research interests include Smart Grid, alternate energy, demand response and critical infrastructure assessment and modeling.

Saifur Rahman talks about the importance of education, awareness, best practices and communicating with consumers about the possibilities that Smart Grid can make available to them.

Question: What is Smart Grid?

Smart Grid starts at the electrical power generator and ends at your refrigerator. The whole span – generation to transmission to distribution to consumption to customer reaction – Smart Grid is more of a culture than something that you can go and buy.

Question: What is Virginia Tech's role in Smart Grid?

We develop hardware and software algorithms that endeavor to make Smart Grid practical, useful and affordable. I run the U.S. Energy Department supported program called Smart Grid Information Clearing House Portal, which was developed with help from IEEE and EnerNex. Virginia Tech is the prime contractor and I am the principal investigator for that project. Our role is to collect information in the U.S. and worldwide to see what deployments have taken place, what technologies are being used and what regulations and best practices are in place. We bring that information to the attention of the public, regulators, policy makers, utility engineers and investors.

Question: Who are the stakeholders in Smart Grid and how will they benefit from the evolution of Smart Grid?

Starting at the bottom, there is the end user – home owner and small business owner. They must see the convenience and monetary benefit they can enjoy from the deployment of Smart Grid. However, end users do not make Smart Grid happen.

The technology providers who make the hardware, the utilities who will deploy it, and the regulators who make deployment possible are the ones that make it happen. In the U.S., utilities rely on funds from the ratepayers,which have to be approved by state regulators, so it is important for regulators to see these things as interconnected. They also have to see that there is a benefit to the public. Regulators are either elected or appointed by the state administration. It is their job to be sensitive to customers' reactions, perceptions and their perceived value of the services being offered to them by utilities.

That is why I always come back to the customer. If customers are on board, they will tell regulators to give the utilities the money they need to buy and install smart meters because they realize that the meters make their lives easier. That is the starting point. This is why I believe Smart Grid in the U.S. and globally will be successful and sustainable only if we can get customers to believe in it. That is a big challenge, which requires education, awareness and the ability to put in the foreground the value that Smart Grid offers to customers.

Question: What does IEEE bring to the Smart Grid?

IEEE is an organization that brings people such as technologists, regulators, standards developers, utility operators and end users, together on a single platform and provides them the ability to reach out to each other as honest brokers. It is important to keep in mind that IEEE has no stake in this. We are totally unbiased, but at the same time fully cognizant of the technology, standards, regulations, customer needs and end user expectations. In short, IEEE plays a major role in starting conversations among different groups that would not otherwise talk to one another.

IEEE is also a huge technology base thanks to its many volunteers, who can, and do, come to the table and spend their own time and resources to discuss Smart Grid issues. They also help to identify and provide directions that companies and regulators can use to guide their thinking to keep everyone involved in Smart Grid moving expeditiously, not blindly, ahead. That is very important.

Question: What are the economic and regulatory issues facing Smart Grid?

First, Smart Grid is not free or cheap. To make it practical, we have to invest. When you use the word investment, the first question that comes to mind is, who will invest and why? Where is the money going to come from?

If homeowners have to buy $500 worth of Smart Grid gadgets to make an application possible, they will probably say no. A program that is required by regulators and supported by the utility, which defines how money will be invested if the utility charges an extra $5 a month to consumers, is more likely to be accepted by customers. Somehow, regulators will have to come up with ways to find the money necessary to make improvements in a manner that does not require customers to bear first costs immediately.

Question: Do you see any killer apps that have the potential to push Smart Grid over the top?

The U.S. and many other countries have a serious issue with peak demand. Very hot summer afternoons, such as the ones Washington D.C. experienced last year, pushed the load up by 10% to 15%. As a result, power companies are required to maintain enough reserve to meet this kind of unexpected demand. In the U.S., 20% of the resources are used only 5% of the time. This means that if we could avoid that 5%, we could save 20%. That is an investment of more than a trillion dollars.

Because Smart Grid has the opportunity to control load by managing things more intelligently, we can stop people from doing too many energy-hungry things at the same time and unknowingly overloading nearby transformers. The power company has to be ready in case this happens, so it must keep extra generation ready, which ends up not being used most of the time.

Using smart meters, Smart Grid can monitor usage and discern the potential for a capacity shortage. Rather than bringing on more capacity, smart meters can be installed to help manage the load without any inconvenience to the customer.

Electric vehicles add another load that has the potential to be problematic in some cases. A family that comes home from work and school at 6 p.m. may plug in their electric car for a charge, start cooking dinner, turn on the air conditioner, and someone might also take a hot shower after throwing a load of clothes in the dryer. Some of the research we do at Virginia Tech monitors cases like this in real time. When smart meters and home monitoring systems are installed, we see people notice everything that is going on and turn off the dryer or wait to charge the car, unless they need to override the system for some reason.

Killer apps are end-user devices that provide real-time monitoring and visibility into how much energy is being used so the home can be operated under a threshold that is best for the family and the power company.

Question: What should consumers know about Smart Grid?

Consumers know the term, but they don't know what it means. In my work at Smart Grid Information Clearinghouse, I talk to many consumer groups, regulators and people from state agencies. They say, "It sounds fine, but what does it do for me?" I know that in some cases power companies have come in and installed smart meters with the customers' knowledge about the cost. That is fine, but what customers need to know first is what kind of benefits they can expect.

I say this because I have talked to many companies that have deployed smart meters. When I ask them what they are doing for their customers, they say they are controlling voltage and reducing energy consumption. The problem here is that if a customer pays a $100 electric bill each month, how are they going to notice a 2% drop in their bill? We have to go beyond that. We need to launch significant education campaigns about what is possible, not just what is happening, and see how people react. If people see the possibility of saving $20 to $30 per month and how they can avoid similar-sized rate increases due to new generation in the future, they will pay attention to what is being said.

Education, awareness, best practices and discussing what is possible are the most important things we can do for consumers. The biggest concern I have with the education issue, however, is that people can begin to lose confidence. When we talk about Smart Grid, they can think it means more automation, more cyber security, more Internet-based systems, and they begin to have thoughts about how all of these things could lead to over dependence on new technology that has an inherent risk of failure. So those topics must be addressed very, very carefully.

Question: What else can utility companies do to get their customers on- board with Smart Grid?

It is a good idea to look at different customer demographics, such as early adopters. You can not roll out the same program for everybody, because people's expectations are different, their amount of savings differs and their ability to react is not the same. We have to provide customers with options and possibilities and explain what they mean, and routinely follow up with them. In the U.S. there are informational inserts that go out with electric bills, but most people just throw them away. Utilities have to go beyond that. They have to make phone calls to follow-up with customers and utilize demographic information to engage customers.

There are several U.S. companies, that look at usage profiles of different customer demographics, the load shape, annual consumption, peak consumption to figure out what is happening. This is very smart. Some companies that are getting into the business do remote demographic analysis and target customers. Once you can show that there are people who are taking advantage of Smart Grid applications and that they are willing to pay for them, utilities have a market to scale up and use that momentum to reach the rest of their customers.