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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Steve Widergren

Steve Widergren is an editor of IEEE's Transactions on Power Systems and participates in standards efforts that bridge power engineering with information technology. He also is Principal Engineer for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Steve Widergren, an editor of IEEE's Transactions on Power Systems, shares his thoughts about the integration of many of the key variables important to Smart Grid's future success.

Question: What is Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's role in Smart Grid?

One of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's missions is to improve our nation’s energy future. As part of that mission as a Department of Energy national laboratory, and for more than a decade, PNNL has been on the cutting edge of R&D to forward the nation’s energy system. In 2001, PNNL started an effort called the Energy System Transformation Initiative, which came to be known as DOE's GridWise program. I was fortunate to be the founding administrator for the GridWise Architecture Council, an offshoot group stemming from GridWise that explores the principles of operation of a smarter electric grid and focuses on interoperability as an important enabling issue to advance Smart Grid. That group continues to cut across many different disciplines to look at the transformational nature of modernizing the electric system.

PNNL and DOE now have many Smart Grid projects underway. I manage PNNL's portion of one of these projects: a real-time pricing program to engage demand-side resources in electric system operations. This project is deploying Smart Grid technologies to automate the response of consumer resources, such as air conditioning systems, to real-time prices. The overall project is headed by our partner Ohio-based American Electric Power. It includes a number of dynamic pricing schemes and comparisons. It also integrates into the system new distributed resources such as electric vehicles, generation and community storage.

Our lab has two pieces of that project with which we collaborate and coordinate with other project members. They include the integration of a thousand homes with a real-time dynamic pricing market. It is the first time, that I am aware of, that a public utility commission has approved a real-time pricing tariff based on a market that is run at the distribution system level. The pricing is based on prices from the real-time wholesale market and augmented to come up with a retail rate. We also work on the computer modeling and simulation of the distribution system, including the automated controls and other new resources, to see how everything interacts. We are particularly interested in things like load balancing, voltage regulation and other issues that have the potential to gain operational efficiencies from Smart Grid concepts.

Battelle, which operates PNNL for the Department of Energy, also is leading the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project, the largest, regional Smart Grid demo in the nation. The project involves partners within five northwest states, and with a variety of assets, to look at further building out the business case for Smart Grid.

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

Smart Grid needs to be seen as a concept and as a vision for a future power system that can align the many different people and organizations involved with electricity to transform the way we provide and use electricity and make the most of what we have right now. The future power system should integrate cleaner forms of electricity and allow us to electrify our transportation system in a way that doesn’t require building more generation — reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

The electricity system is a clean, quick and wonderful conduit for energy. While we have had technology gains in the telecommunications industry, financial industry and others, it has taken awhile for the energy area to collaborate with communications and computer intelligence to transform the way we run our systems.

Smart Grid is not as much a "thing" as it is a concept and a vision of collaboration. It's something that should always be just out of our reach, because we always will be looking for better ways to integrate technologies and deliver greater efficiencies. There are plenty of good ideas out there now and there will be plenty more to come.

Question: Many people we interview say that people do not realize how smart the existing grid is and think that Smart Grid is a whole new concept instead of an evolution that is taking place. What are your thoughts on that?

By its nature, the electric system needs to be evolving, not revolutionary. It is something that has to provide the reliability, security and dependability necessary to support our economy. The existing system is not something that is going to be switched out right away or something we can quickly take in a totally new direction.

That said, we are looking at some transition points and tipping points that must occur within the operation of the system. These will evolve over time, but they must be relatively radical. The fact that we can have participation in the operation of the system all the way down to the appliance level is contrary to the way that we have run the system since its inception. We have always varied the system's generation to meet whatever the load needs, but now we have the ability to balance the system by varying the load as well. To do this effectively will require a more decentralized control approach to system operations.

Question: Can you share some examples of Smart Grid pilots or trials that are taking place?

We did one of the early pilots back in the 2005-2006 timeframe in the Olympic Peninsula. We put instruments in approximately 100 homes and some facilities, which included distributed generation within them. We ran a market in that area on a real-time basis to actually integrate these resources to take care of some of the local utility's distribution problems.

Transmission lines that brought energy into that area were reaching their capacity limits, so we experimented by putting pseudo-constraints in the system. We used these techniques in a distributed control, multi-agent environment to balance the load with the energy delivery capability of the system. That would have been far more difficult if we had used some sort of centralized controller that was trying to reach out and control washing machines, dryers and HVAC units. The technique we demonstrated, called transactive control, marries market systems with engineering control systems to obtain optimal response of resources for Smart Grid applications.

American Electric Power has a Smart Grid program that looks at many different dynamic pricing schemes. We took our experience with the Olympic Peninsula and tried scaling it up to a 1000 homes in the Columbus, Ohio area. That market now runs off of real-time rates that are actually driven by the the regional wholesale market. The system has been designed and its software controllers have been implemented. It is in the testing phase and when it is deployed into the field, we expect to see some very interesting results.

Another project our lab is working on, which I mentioned earlier, is the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project. Run by Battelle, which operates PNNL for DOE, the project is a collaboration of many utilities within the region, and includes vendors and national laboratory researchers, to bring together and coordinate resources at a transmission level. We also are using transactive control mechanisms to balance electric power needs in real-time at the transmission level. We can coordinate the different electric resources that the different companies offer to come up with an optimized scheme for resolving operational issues through a similar transactive control mechanism.

Question: How do you envision Smart Grid in the future?

There are lots of ideas about how the future grid will look. But how do we get there? We've been talking a little bit about the distributed nature of the system and the transformational aspects of that. We will continue to see more investment going into the electric distribution side – the control strategies and the optimization strategies. People will be paying attention to the economic signals required to integrate these resources.

The more we look at electric vehicles and electric transportation, the more people are saying, "You know, this time it's going to happen." How long that will take has yet to be seen. There is a growing level of interest and attention to conduct research and try to solve transportation issues.

We also see intelligence going into appliances with built-in chips that can alter their processes. We are going to see increased demand for smart appliances. As they gain traction, we can use their flexibility to reduce the need for controllable generation and increase our ability to absorb more variable generation from solar and wind facilities. Taking that intelligence and integrating it into the distribution and transmission devices will also be important. The power system delivery infrastructure will require more flexibility because of the diversity of generation scenarios.

It is very hard to predict exactly what the mix of electric generation sources will be in the future. I wouldn't discount any of the possible sources of energy. Because the future is unknown, we need flexible electricity delivery infrastructure and controls.

Question: Are rate design and rate structures as important as technological advancements are to the evolution of Smart Grid?

Technology provides potential in terms of where we can go, but we can't really get there unless we have a business proposition that is good for the customer. While we do not have regulatory alignment across the country, we have seen a lot of participation and differences in the manner that energy generation works with load in places where we have made changes and done some restructuring.

If we have the ability to use technology to automatically vary demand with supply, we have the possibility of creating balance. The more naturally balanced the economic situation, the more one can squeeze efficiency out of the system. However, technology needs to execute customers' preferences for them instead of requiring customers to optimize their own usage. One also needs regulations and rules that define how people can offer services and appliances that do these things, or it is going to be very difficult for those changes to occur.

It is extremely important to provide consumers choice in how they use electricity, and consumers will need to understand the impacts of their choices. Regulators must explore the nature of the electric business with respect to the smart grid vision so they can create regulations that allow smart grid capabilities to be unleashed without having something go totally haywire. One of the high points of working in a national laboratory, and the reason we are working in this area, is to make sure that we get greater efficiencies out of the system while continuing to reliably serve our economy with electricity.

Steve Widergren is the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel Plenary Chair for an effort started by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) under the legislation of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). Under EISA, NIST was given the mandate to advance interoperability of Smart Grid devices and systems. In addition to working as a project manager at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, he works with American Electric Power on the second largest Smart Grid demonstration project that was contracted under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 Legislation. For more information about PNNL's smart grid research, visit