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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Massoud Amin

Dr. Massoud Amin, director of the University of Minnesota's Technological Leadership Institute and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

In this interview, Massoud Amin discusses the important example that university microgrids can be to their communities and the value these early implementations can provide to the overall industry.

Question: You have said that university campuses and communities represent an appealing environment for test applications of Smart Grid. Why is this? And what can industry and the population-at-large learn from these Smart Grid test beds?

Because Smart Grid implementations can range from microgrids for villages and communities to large-scale systems that serve entire countries, there is no cookie cutter "right" size project for assessing the best candidates for Smart Grid deployments. Villages are often too small, yet countries are too large due to the lengthy timeframes required, the complexity of assessing costs and benefits and policy and ownership issues.

Microgrid projects that focus on university campuses, communities, and cities may offer the right scale and very practical environments for testing Smart Grid systems. The projects are generally intermediate-scale deployments that can investigate the entire range of issues that arise with Smart Grid and they can be used to create a diversity of goods and services that provide value to consumers. The research experiences and findings that result from these projects can have very meaningful implications for other organizations that are deploying large or small systems.

For example, we are building a microgrid at the Morris campus of the University of Minnesota. The project essentially serves as a living laboratory of our efforts to make the university a “net zero” Smart Grid, one that produces as much energy as it consumes.

We have employed a holistic systems approach for all of our work on this project. It engages faculty, postdocs, researchers, undergraduates, consumers from across the local community, as well as utilities from the wider Smart Grid Coalition in Minnesota to build consensus on issues such as microgrid configuration, cost-effectiveness, and security. This community involvement is very characteristic of campus-based projects and it can play a vital role in the advancement of Smart Grid generally because, in this era of policy gridlock, it's hard to build consensus to accomplish meaningful things at the national level.

From an overall North American power system perspective, microgrids are closer to consumers who are the innermost part of the multi-layered, end-to-end system. Like Russian nested dolls, smaller units such as microgrids can be encompassed or integrated within larger systems. Considering the whole system, our first strategy should be to expand and strengthen the transmission backbone (by adding about 42,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines to the existing 450,000 miles of 100KV and higher, at a total cost of about $82 billion), augmented with highly efficient local microgrids that combine heat, power, and storage systems, as a Smart Grid with self-healing capabilities (total cost, $17-24 billion annually for 20 years). The costs cover a wide variety of enhancements to bring the power delivery system to the performance levels required for Smart Grid. They include the infrastructure to integrate distributed energy resources and achieve full customer connectivity but exclude the cost of generation, the cost of transmission expansion to add renewables and to meet load growth and a category of customer costs for Smart-Grid-ready appliances and devices.

Investing in the grid would pay for itself, to a great extent. It would save stupendous outage costs—about $49 billion per year (and get 12 to 18 percent annual reductions in emissions). Improvement in efficiency would cut energy usage, saving an additional $20.4 billion annually.

The benefit-to-cost ratios are found to range from 2.8 to 6.0. Thus, the Smart Grid definition used as the basis for the study could have been even wider, and yet benefits of building a Smart Grid still would exceed costs by a healthy margin. By enhancing efficiency, for example, Smart Grid could reduce 2030 overall CO2 emissions from the electric sector by 58 percent, relative to 2005 emissions.

To move toward this goal in a pragmatic way, university campuses are also practical test beds for Smart Grid because most campuses have generation capacity internally. The settings therefore provide a self-contained environment for simulating and testing alternative Smart Grid architectures and designs and developing and assessing models, algorithms and tools for integrating generation, storage, and loads within the campus microgrid.

Question: What are some of the practical issues communities will face when assessing renewable resource options and planning microgrids to make the most of these resources?

Microgrids draw energy from distributed generators, such as natural gas, solar farms, wind farms, biomass, geothermal or other sources that are locally available. They serve their individual markets' electricity needs by continually monitoring demand response, conservation and efficiency of energy-intensive subsystems and the system overall.

We basically design each microgrid to operate autonomously. Each microgrid is ultimately self-interested in meeting its local demand, and only after that demand has been met can the excess can be shipped to loads and storage units located on other microgrids. The microgrid is operated from a systems perspective that requires a close understanding of the ability of each intermittent, distributed energy resource to replace traditional generation resources.

For example, in work supported by Sandia National Laboratories, we have modeled stochastic and time-bearing generators, such as wind, and assessed the impact of storage on these systems when adding units with 1 megawatt hour capacity to each microgrid.

We have found that moderate amounts of storage can play a significant role in maintaining reliability indices, especially for microgrids that have high penetrations of intermittent distributed energy resources.

Question: What will it take to address concerns that communications linked to their energy services will invade consumers' privacy?

Customer concerns are of vital importance. When it comes right down to it, what would the power supply or power grid be without consumers? If there is any compromise of the privacy or security of the service, it will undermine everything. An incident would not only create a breach of confidentiality for the information that has been compromised, but it might also compromise the potential future markets the technology might have been able to create if it the service had been secure.

The bottom line is that security cannot be added to a system as an afterthought. We need to start from scratch, at the very beginning of any microgrid project, and consider privacy and security in all design criteria. Strategic consideration of these issues will make a huge difference in the confidence and protection that the overall system provides. This is necessary whether the design effort is focusing on silicon chips, network components, end-user devices, the architecture, or the system as whole.

In our work we have proposed and tested several different layers of technologies that monitor and support the privacy of customer information. Security technologies are employed for traffic analyzers, signal analyzers, and agents that monitor voltages, frequency, current (along with their rates of changes), and user behavior. Each component is secured independently and locally so the security precautions cannot be reverse engineered.

This is not a hierarchical system that can be destroyed or taken down. If one or two layers fail, the system does not fail. It’s essentially a self-reconfiguring, self-healing architecture. If anybody attacks it or tries to compromise one part of it, the system reconfigures to not only protect itself but to localize and fend off such attacks.

Question: Is storage still the Achilles heel of Smart Grid, or has the industry made progress in this area?

When we look at the big challenges we have, such as electrification of transportation and integration of renewables into the grid, storage is one of the key technologies that will be needed. Much work needs to be done in this area but we've made significant progress.

For one of our projects here at the University of Minnesota, funded by the National Science Foundation, we are looking at the optimal mix, placement, and application of energy storage systems needed in a network to increase reliability of the distribution system. Our research is investigating the cost benefits of customer-owned storage systems, ways to prioritize multi-customer emergency backup services, the optimal battery charge needed for each storage component, algorithms for discharging commercial and industrial customer storage systems, and even determining which rate structures are beneficial for customers that use and contribute energy storage resources. We are also examining partitioning of battery capacity for multiple storage applications.

Our researchers and others at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have done quite a bit of work to understand the value of allowing a subset of "high-cost-of-outage" customers in the commercial and industrial sectors to be able to use storage capacity to ride through interruptions or disturbances in the system. We have developed optimization approaches for this.

In addition, we've assessed the maturity of battery technologies for commercial and residential storage applications. This work has considered the life cycle and total cost of each option, including cost per kilowatt and cost per kilowatt hours overall. Each of these considerations will influence where to put storage components, not just to improve reliability but also to facilitate use of renewables such as wind turbines and solar panels. We have considered deployment and usage considerations for legacy distribution systems and clean-slate microgrids.

Question: In your opinion, what is the one thing that is not being said enough about Smart Grid?

I don't think we adequately express the real value that electricity contributes to the economies and quality of life that people around the world have today. You know, electrons are the most efficient carrier of energy, and that's why electricity is so broadly used and why we are seeing increased use of electricity as the preferred choice for energy services.

Electricity is also the ideal energy carrier for economic and social development because it has a unique capability to be produced from a wide variety of local sources and because it can be delivered with precision, cleanliness, and efficiency. Electricity is a toolmaker's dream and it continues to open doors of invention that lead to incredibly precise and intelligent technologies, advanced forms of communication and new forms of instrumentation.

From a broader perspective, it has only taken a single century for electricity to become the foundation and prime mover of our modern society. Today, in the second decade of this new century, we must ask what its role and value will be for the next 25 to 30 years and beyond.

The answer is that it will be a smart, self-healing system that has minimum footprint on the environment, that can generate more energy while wasting less, and is more secure. The Smart Grid will dramatically increase the value that electricity provides and we need to clearly articulate the value it will have on our economies, societies, and quality of life and map out what we are going to do in the coming years to use it.

Recent policies in the U.S., EU, China, India, Korea, Brazil, and other nations, combined with potential for technological innovations and business opportunities, have attracted a high level of interest in Smart Grids. Smart Grids are seen as a fundamentally transformative, global imperative for helping the planet deal with its energy and environmental challenges. The ultimate goal is for an end-to-end electric power system (from fuel source, to generation, transmission, distribution, and end use) enabled by a suite of technologies that would catapult America and the nations noted into the 21st Century.

Smart Grid's benefits will come from increased energy efficiency, advanced end-to-end components, the integration of renewable and distributed resources, electric transportation, and new customer-focused energy business models. These breakthroughs will dramatically improve the value of electricity, which is already so necessary to our lives, compared to the value it has for us today.

Dr. Amin is a senior member of IEEE, chairman of the IEEE Smart Grid newsletter, and a fellow of ASME. He holds the Honeywell/H.W. Sweatt Chair in Technological Leadership at the University of Minnesota.