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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Bob Saint

In this interview, Bob Saint summarizes some of the roles electric cooperatives have played in advancing the commercialization of Smart Grid technologies. He also shares some of results from recent demonstration projects, conducted at rural electric cooperatives, to develop cybersecurity and distributed generation impact modeling technologies that utilities can include in their Smart Grid implementations.

Question: How do you expect the Smart Grid industry to evolve over the course of the next five or ten years?

The Smart Grid industry really benefitted from the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. ARRA, in particular, gave billions of dollars in federal funding to help utilities implement Smart Grid technology and so the technology really got a boost from this legislation. Today those funds are mostly spent and now we need to start doing a better job of justifying the continued implementation of Smart Grid technologies. I believe this will happen, but the deployments will take place at a slower pace than we’ve observed recently when federal money was available.

Some technologies will come to fruition sooner than others. As we have seen, smart meters for advanced metering infrastructure represent one of the first technologies utilities can use to automate their systems and thus these technologies were among the first deployed. These deployments will continue and most utilities will have the technology in place in the next five or 10 years, however not all utilities will need to deploy meters that take readings at 15-minute intervals because this capability is not required in all states.

Other technologies that are catching on include software applications for consumers and distribution management systems, including outage management technologies and real-time monitoring of the distribution system. These technologies will be implemented by many utilities in the next five to 10 years.

Electric cooperatives have been trend setters for technologies such as AMI and smart meters. What is it about the business model or culture at electric cooperatives that makes them early adopters?

Actually, investor-owned utilities are finally catching up with the cooperatives, thanks in large part to federal funding for AMI projects. But it has been easier for cooperatives especially, and for small utilities in general, to justify deploying AMI and other automation techniques.

AMI lowers the cost of meter reading, which is particularly costly for rural electric cooperatives that serve broad geographic areas. AMI’s abilities to verify an outage at a particular meter, monitor the system during outages and in some cases automatically reconnect customers all contribute to help minimize the need to dispatch personnel across a broad service area to perform these tasks. So the payback for a rural AMI system can be a lot easier to establish than it might be for more urban utilities.

And it is true that there is a decision-making structure and culture within cooperatives that can facilitate technology adoption. Small companies tend to have short chains of command, which can speed up decision-making. And small companies know they must innovate aggressively if they want to remain competitive with larger utilities and make the best use of their smaller staffs of employees.

I also think that engineers at cooperatives are more likely to deliberately look for ways to improve customer service and member satisfaction. If an engineer finds a way to better serve the customer with a new technology, the CEO will likely suggest that the engineer propose it at the next board meeting. Projects can move forward without losing momentum.

Electric cooperatives are also deploying interoperability and cybersecurity technologies. What motivates this work and how are cooperatives using these technologies?

This work stems in large part to the MultiSpeak® software integration initiative that was started by the NRECA’s Cooperative Research Network in 2000.

Cooperatives, because they are lean organizations and may not have the resources for custom software integration projects, really depend on the efficiencies and benefits that interoperability standardization can provide. In 2000 NRECA members realized that there were no interoperable standards available to facilitate the transfer of data for distribution utilities and they began developing MultiSpeak to make this possible.

MultiSpeak is now mature, with many definitions and standardized interfaces that cooperatives and other utilities now include as part of their specifications when they buy AMI systems, outage management systems, and other software for transferring data from one system to another in the distribution utility. MultiSpeak fits very well within the context of the IEEE 2030® architectural framework that facilitates interoperability of systems used in Smart Grids.

Recently, thanks to ARRA funding for a NRECA demonstration project, we have created a security standard for MultiSpeak. The security standard can be overlaid on existing MultiSpeak interfaces. It was ratified by the MultiSpeak membership in early 2013 and is now available to members of the MultiSpeak Initiative. We are working to make it available to the IEC Common Interface Model community as a common way to establish secure interfaces. The demonstration project includes a template that cooperatives and other utilities can use to systematically develop security programs at their utilities. This template is available to everyone via the demonstration project web site.

You have said that electric cooperatives enjoy a higher level of trust with their consumers compared to other utilities, thanks in part to better communications strategies. What communications strategies are cooperatives using?

I do think trust is a big factor. For example, we have all seen the big pushback against smart meters at some utilities and I think consumer distrust is a big factor behind this pushback. Of course, cooperatives haven’t completely avoided resistance to smart meters but I do think cooperatives have enjoyed a better response compared to other segments because the cooperative business structure requires that they have more direct and better relationships with their customers than investor-owned utilities need to have.

Communication between a cooperative and its consumers is really a natural process because the cooperative’s consumers are considered a part of the company. Every year, a cooperative’s members elect a board of directors and the process requires effective communications with the membership. Company employees feel more personally accountable to customers and the company’s management is typically more engaged locally. Often the CEO is involved in the Chamber of Commerce or the Rotary Club and is accessible to members through these venues.

Cooperatives also tend to invite their members to participate in key initiatives and decisions. Cooperatives often hold member meetings throughout the year, establish member committees to work on company projects and rely on their members to help make decisions. And as we know, people who are involved in a decision-making process feel a sense of ownership in an outcome and are more inclined to support it.

The NRECA has supported numerous other demonstration projects that will pertain to Smart Grid. Can you highlight a key development from these projects that is of particular interest to you?

The NRECA’s CRN has been working with Department of Energy and other agencies as a part of a demonstration project to develop a user-friendly web-based Open Modeling Framework for evaluating the costs and benefits of distribution grid investment decisions. The OMF incorporates GridLAB-D, a very powerful tool developed by Pacific Northwest National Lab that analyzes the impact of distributed generation, especially the intermittent generation derived from solar and wind power, to determine the feasibility of adding those technologies into a distribution system.

As you know, integration of distributed generation is an important characteristic of the Smart Grid. Utilities must have the capability to understand these impacts and at IEEE I chair the IEEE P1547.7 working group that is studying these impacts and the process of integrating distributed generation into distribution systems.

The OMF, which takes into consideration the present and future requirements of IEEE 1547™ and the guidance of IEEE P1547.7, will greatly facilitate the ability to analyze the feasibility and impacts of distributed generation on the system and it can be used as a real time tool for new distribution management systems that are beginning to be deployed. This should become a real valuable tool for small utilities, especially, which don’t typically utilize these types of programs routinely.

You mentioned your work on IEEE P1547.7, which focus on the interconnection of distributed resources into the grid. What do utilities and others in the ecosystem need to understand about this work or other work under way at IEEE?

I have been involved in the IEEE 1547 series of standards since I moved to NRECA in late 2000. The original standard was completed in 2003 and reaffirmed in 2008 but there is still work going on in this area.

IEEE P1547.7 will provide a guide for conducting distribution impact studies when implementing distributed generation. As chair of the IEEE P1547.7 working group, I encourage utilities to get involved in this and other activities that help advance the IEEE 1547 series of standards. We do have a number of the utilities involved in these working groups but we would like to have more. We have a number of manufacturers and consultants involved and we encourage participation from all of those folks as well. But we would especially like to have more utilities involved because these standards definitely impact the operation of the utility.

I am also involved in some of the standards that are developed within the IEEE Power and Energy Society’s distribution subcommittee and the power quality subcommittee that deals with distribution standards. These IEEE committees are created for the benefit of utilities, and we certainly encourage more utilities to be involved in those activities as well.

Bob Saint has spent the majority of his career working for electric cooperatives. For the past 12 years he has worked for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, where he is principal distribution engineer in the association’s energy and power division and serves as technical advisor to the association’s transmission and distribution engineering system planning subcommittee. He is a very active technical representative for NRECA in the Smart Grid industry.