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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Nicholas Abi-Samra

Nicholas (Nick) Abi-Samra of Quanta Technology recently served as both General Chair and overall Technical Program Coordinator for the successful 2012 IEEE Power & Energy Society General Meeting. He has more than 35 years of experience in power systems, planning, operations and maintenance.

In this interview, Nick Abi-Samra ties together three areas of power technology that will have lasting impact on the Smart Grid: Electric vehicles, utility readiness and the importance of communications technologies.

Question: Electric vehicles (EVs) and their impact on the grid seem to be something of a wild card. Has EV technology reached a point at which utilities can actually plan for the new load?

Yes and several utilities are already conducting planning studies to evaluate the impacts of EVs on their distribution systems, and are starting to consider expected high proliferation in their planning activities. Utilities must maintain flexibility in the planning because timing and the spread of EVs are somewhat unpredictable now but there is little doubt that eventually EVs will be a big factor in our society.

Question: Explain the implications of EV "clustering".

Clustering refers to the situation where one neighborhood, and thus, one distribution transformer serves multiple electric vehicles. Just two EVs can add a 10 kVA of load to a 25 kVA distribution transformer. Clustering stresses the power delivery system, possibly necessitating costly upgrades of equipment. Besides impacts on the equipment (e.g., distribution transformers), clustering may lead to issues with voltage regulation, system losses and power quality. Therefore, EV charging needs to be managed to avoid local problems for utilities.

Question: Has the impact of EVs on overall utility rate structures been fully explored?

No, not fully. Although the impact of EVs on "traditional" and current rates may be understood, the impact on rate structures when there are more EVs and more charging stations have not been fully explored.

Question: What implications do EVs have on other aspects of utility operations?

Large deployments of EVs will change load patterns and total energy sales for the utilities. Hence they offer the industry the chance to transform itself. This would be similar to a previous decade – the 1950s – when affordable air conditioning became available. That, too, led to a massive increase in energy sales, a major redistribution of load curve shape (when, how long, and why customers bought power), and to major expansion/rebuilding of the industry and its power systems. EVs potentially could have the same effect and utilities should be gearing up to that. Air conditioning provided a number of lessons learned so we can avoid similar problems. EVs will probably grow slower for a few more years and then ramp rapidly. Technology will improve but it's likely that EVs will increase load density and a robust power delivery system will be needed.

Question: Before we leave the subject of EVs, what are the customer expectations with regard to charging?

The majority of existing EV owners favors charging at home, but they want to charge at faster rate. For prospective buyers of new cars, faster charging is an important factor in the decision to buy an EV over a conventional vehicle, yet, customers are only ready to pay a fraction of what such services and equipment may actually cost (for at-home charging or public charging stations).

Question: EVs aren't the only challenge for utilities. What other encounters will utilities have in the Smart Grid transformation?

I see three areas that utilities across the globe will encounter. The first is managing a new kind of relation with the customers; second is the accommodation of electric vehicles, renewables and microgrids (each with their associated set of opportunities and challenges) into their existing systems; and lastly, maintaining, or even improving, reliability. If the utility has a handle on these three areas, then the transformation into Smart Grid systems will be much easier.

Question: If you were to pick two salient areas in the deployment of the Smart Grid, what would they be?

In my opinion, the first area is the legacy systems that the Smart Grid must co-exist with. Many utilities have aging assets that will require reinvestments over the next 10 to 20 years. The Smart Grid could help manage such assets.

The second area is cyber security: Hardening security in general and guarding against threats to the grid itself, in particular. There is also a threat to the confidentiality of customer data. Leading utilities are taking discrete steps to bolster cyber security from the get-go in their Smart Grid deployments.

Question: What aspects of utility operations are important to Smart Grid success?

The Smart Grid will require changes to utility standards, guidelines and business processes – including customer service, asset management, energy management, system planning and engineering, system protection, system operations and control, outage management, mobile workforce and management. Taking a holistic view of the Smart Grid impacts; developing overall customer service, asset management and grid operations strategies; crafting "to-be" utility enterprise architecture; and managing the changes are all important in optimizing and sustaining the Smart Grid benefits.

Question: How can one valuate a Smart Grid investment?

Valuation can vary widely, yet it is useful to think of two "value" categories: Direct and option values. "Direct values" represent the quantifiable values/benefits that can be measured when systems/components are deployed, and they do not require other systems/components to be deployed, or behaviors to change. "Option values" represent those Smart Grid applications that rely on additional activities, such as customer behavior change before value can be fully realized. Demand response, enabled by smart meters, will depend on consumers changing their behavior – including responding to price signals.

Like other investments, Smart Grid needs a business case justification with realistic cost and resource requirement estimates, timeline, and benefits – including strategic as well as quantifiable utility operational benefits, ratepayer benefits, and societal benefits. Many utilities prepared several iterations of these before they settled on one. Holistically, though, the marginal cost for smart technology might be small, once the total savings and benefits of smart technology are taken into account.

Question: Must utilities adopt a new paradigm for reliability?

Yes, when it comes down to the reliability concepts. The Smart Grid will change today's distribution grid into a "common bus" for sharing/mixing utility resources and customer resources. Therefore, reliability should focus on the customer's power reliability from all these sources, compared to the old paradigm of considering grid resources only. New reliability concepts and metrics that accommodate this view must be developed. On the issue of the reliability of the grid, the "self-healing" feature of the Smart Grid will lead to much higher reliability, as measured by the standard indices, such as SAIFI, SAIDI, etc.

Question: Is there a synergy between communications and the Smart Grid?

Yes, under the Smart Grid, utilities will deploy a large number of devices that must communicate with some other point in the utility. That point could be a control center or just another node. The amount of data is staggering – many orders of magnitude greater than even few years ago. A truly Smart Grid cannot be achieved with a collage of independent networks with proprietary data and communications protocols. Utilities cannot afford independent networks for corporate applications, substation automation, for SCADA, etc. Having an integrated communication strategy and blueprint – and eventually an integrated network operation center (NOC) – will become essential. Networks that were once separate can share and leverage the same infrastructure and common services (such as security, network performance management, etc.). I believe the utility industry recognizes this challenge and is working in this direction. We at the IEEE recognized the importance of communication in the power delivery system and made it one of the pillars of the IEEE Power & Energy 2012 General Meeting.

Question: How can utilities avoid obsolescence in communication systems?

As you know, technological change in information technology (IT) is dramatically faster than in the electric sector: Many grid components last over 40-60 years but the useful life of IT equipment is typically a fraction of that. So we can delay obsolescence only and to a limited extent. For that, three key areas are useful. The first is "over-the-air" firmware upgradeability of new capabilities or patching of security threats. Second is low latency for quicker communications. Third is bandwidth to accommodate the expected future applications that have the highest bandwidth needs.

Question: What role does wireless play in Smart Grid communications strategies and EVs?

Smart Grid, smart metering, and HAN (Home Area Network) integration will continue to use both wired and wireless communications, depending on attributes and economics of individual utilities' service territories. EV is no different. Wireless systems, as well as wired systems, need to be designed with an eye on the future, in terms of bandwidths and latency. As with Internet, they will be carrying many times more data and information that they are carrying today.

As Vice President of Asset Management at Quanta Technology, Nick Abi-Samra leads a team of experts who are assisting utilities to better manage and modernize their assets, including their Smart Grid assets, at a lower total life cycle cost.