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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Noel Schulz

Noel Schulz is President of the IEEE Power & Energy Society for 2012 and 2013 and Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Kansas State University.

Noel Schulz describes the balancing act that many different types of engineers must perform as Smart Grid unfolds over the years to come.

Question: How would you define Smart Grid?

Smart Grid is really looking at effective integration of technology into electric power systems to increase their reliability. It also gives customers a chance to learn more about their energy usage and how they can use energy and smart appliances efficiently in their homes.

I think it's a great balancing act, too. We need to look at the balance of energy as it relates to generation and loads. Another thing we see is integrating new technology such as communications, controls, computers and advanced electronics together into Smart Grid. And then there is the public aspect of Smart Grid – being able to have interfaces in customers' homes that help them understand how much energy they are using and offering them the choice to use renewable energy. The information that is provided to customers also helps them reduce their energy bills by installing better insulation or doing other things that puts their energy use back in their control.

Question: What is Kansas State University's involvement in Smart Grid?

In the education area, we are trying to make sure our students know about all the different areas that affect Smart Grid, as well as electrical and computer engineering. We also do K-12 outreach, to let younger students know about what is happening in Smart Grid and get them interested in electrical engineering.

In research, we work with companies and federal agencies on developing different applications. There are two brand new transmission lines coming into Kansas. We are studying how that is going to affect the state's power grid, how we can integrate those lines into the existing grid and how to maintain their stability, especially in the windy areas of western Kansas.

We also have the opportunity to work with utilities to integrate smart meters. We help them look at ways they can use the smart meters for the benefit of their customers as well as their own operational activities.

Question: How should we design the utility system in the future and who should be involved?

My colleague John McDonald says Smart Grid is a journey and not a destination and I think that when we talk about Smart Grid we are probably talking about Smart Grid 2.0 or 3.0. We have some features in the grid already and we are just looking at incorporating more.

Smart Grid is going to be a great opportunity for the next generation of engineers to help improve our infrastructure and work on new problems. There will be many different types of engineers involved, including electrical, mechanical and civil engineers. As we talk about renewable technologies and building structures, architectural engineers will help us to build efficient homes and integrate smart appliances into them. Chemical engineers and material scientists will be looking at new materials. Bio-engineers are looking at feed stocks that we can use for bio-fuels in the power system. Industrial engineers are looking at human factors, while computer scientists are working on cyber security.

Question: What challenges stand between Smart Grid and the realization of the potential breadth and depth of opportunities it offers in the future?

The biggest challenge is that there is no magic solution or magic bullet. It's a big challenge to try to determine the best solutions. The answer is different depending on where you may be in the world and whether you are talking about residential or commercial needs.

As engineers, we have to balance social pressures and how society wants things with the technical details. Sometimes society is pressing for one opportunity or another that may still have a lot of complex technical issues to work through. We also have to help the public understand the technology and the fact that we can't make the grid smarter with the wave of a wand. The power system is a huge piece of infrastructure and it is going to take time to change it, so people are going to have to be patient.

We also have to look at the different systems and solutions to determine what makes the most sense economically. Customers need to be able to understand the advantages of an application as well as the costs that go along with it.

Question: Should consumers be concerned about increased costs, security and privacy and other things that are discussed with regard to Smart Grid?

The electric power grid is a pretty conservative area and the people involved in it are very careful about security and how information is collected and used. Right now there is a lot of interest in getting cyber security experts more involved in helping us to understand the information we have and how it could be used.

As far as costs go, the question is how much will it cost to start doing Smart Grid? If we don't do some activities, the costs may go up faster. We have to make smart decisions on things that are going to give us the biggest return in terms of improving Smart Grid. People have to realize that there will be a balance between performance and reliability versus costs. For example, people who buy recycled paper pay a premium for it, but they do it to help the environment. With Smart Grid, there could be green power tariff that would cost you a little more to use green power. There is potential for give and take when it comes to costs.

Question: What opportunities do you think Smart Grid will provide to utility companies in the future?

The evolution of electric utilities over the last 20 years has prepared them to move into this new era. Deregulation and some separation of different parts of the grid has brought more and more optimization as we have added new resources. We are going to be looking at a new paradigm in which we have both integrated and distributed resources, applications and systems. We have the ability to be integrated and interconnected, but we also have the ability to separate into a micro-grid in the event of a severe storm, for example. Over the past five to 10 years, our ability to use distributed resources has allowed us to operate when our systems have been under duress.

After hurricane Katrina, one of the electric utilities in Mississippi actually islanded some loads to power some pumps that were used to pump gas to Atlanta and New England. They islanded those loads because they were afraid they might make the system unstable. Back in 2005, islanding was rare. Today, islanding and micro-grids and separation are commonplace. In the past, there was a big emphasis on interconnection. Now we are looking at how to integrate and separate our networks in a manner that optimizes their operation on an as-needed basis.

Question: What is the Power & Electrical Society's role in Smart Grid?

The IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) is the main domain of Smart Grid-related knowledge. Many other IEEE societies bring their technologies and skills to Smart Grid and integrate it with the electric power system. We were one of the first entities to use computers to try to model large mainframe computers in order to mold the power system. PES continues to be a leader in that area and others.

One of the biggest areas is standards, which are very important to Smart Grid. They help to provide interoperability and open access to some of the technologies that will enable innovative new products and excellent new solutions. PES also disseminates best practices through our journals and conferences. The IEEE Journal on Smart Grid is growing. There is a lot of interest in the journal and it helps us learn from each other.

We also offer continuing education to our engineers and work on priming the pipeline of new engineers. We have a scholarship program and student program to ensure that we educate the next generation of power & energy engineers. PES also works with many other societies. The great thing about IEEE is it brings us all together under one umbrella, which enables us to create unique and diverse solutions for these challenges we face developing Smart Grid.

As a faculty member at Kansas State University, Noel Schulz works in several different areas including education, research and outreach. She helps federal and state officials better understand Smart Grid and serves as a third party resource for those looking for the pros and cons of different technologies or wanting information they can use when making decisions or creating policies.