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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Shawkat Ali

Shawkat AliShawkat Ali is an IEEE Smart Grid Technical Expert, a senior member of IEEE and an active member of the IEEE Queensland Section. He is an authority in computational intelligence and its role in Smart Grid. He speaks frequently on these and related topics at IEEE conferences, serves on conference committees and regularly reviews papers for IEEE conference proceedings. He has also chaired IEEE international workshops on computing topics. He is a member of the IEEE Computational Intelligence Society.

In this interview, Shawkat Ali explains how utilities can use computational intelligence for Smart Grid planning and optimization and to meet the industry’s complex security needs. He notes that utilities will need cloud computing technologies to store the vast amounts of data generated by Smart Grids, and that data mining tools will be needed to make effective use of this information. The Internet of Things, he says, will also play an important role in implementing and making efficient use of Smart Grids.

Question: What are the most important Smart Grid trends you are observing today, and how should industry and society respond to these trends?

We need electrical power to continue functioning as a society, to run our industries and to support daily life, but the demand for electrical power is not stable and it is increasing very rapidly. Some researchers say that electricity demand is growing at a 2.4% annual rate. The International Energy Agency expects that world electricity demand will likely double between 2000 and 2030. Demand is growing in developed and developing countries, but it is particularly noteworthy in developing countries, where consumption is expected to increase from 27% of the world’s usage in 2000 to 43% in 2030. To meet these needs, the global power industry is expected to invest $16 trillion in infrastructure, or $550 billion per year, between 2001 and 2030.

The Smart Grid will enable us to improve the grid’s efficiency and incorporate renewables so society can meet these demands in a way that minimizes carbon emissions and reduces electricity’s environmental impact.

Many regions and countries are using the concept to pursue environmental strategies. The European Union, for example, has established aggressive 2020 targets for renewable energy supplies. One of its most ambitious countries is Ireland, which is working to have 40% renewable electricity generation by 2020 and reach net zero carbon status by 2035. Germany also has an aggressive strategy.  China’s target is to produce 16% of its primary energy with renewable energy sources by 2020.  It plans to generate 30 GW of wind power. And a leading oil producer, Saudi Arabia, is also implementing Smart Grid and the use of renewable energy.

These activities are inspiring others to move into the new Smart Grid new era. It is unavoidable now, so we should all join in to help it advance and succeed.

Are there any technology breakthroughs that you think utilities should know about now as they deploy new Smart Grid infrastructure and services?

I like to say that the Smart Grid represents a 50-50 combination of traditional grid and modern information and communication technologies (ICT). We don’t need Nobel Prize-winning technologies to run a Smart Grid.  We have the technology. We just need to integrate existing systems.

For instance, in my office, we are monitoring how much power one of our campus buildings consumes every day from solar, wind and even coal and we are viewing the data on a commercially available display. We’re using readily available technologies for this application.

Smart meters are very practical instruments for monitoring trends and we can use electricity demand data from the meters to inform our forecasting technologies. We can predict how much power we will need for a given time period and combine that with forecasts of how much power we are going to receive from solar or wind to determine how much power we must produce from our traditional sources.

For all of these examples, we have the technology we need already at hand. We just need to incorporate it and integrate it with the grid so we can move forward with our Smart Grid concepts and strategies.

What types of Smart Grid challenges still need to be addressed?

Dealing with the quantity of data generated by Smart Grid is an important challenge. Smart Grid is creating a wonderful database that is a resource for monitoring the system and even solving operational problems. But the database needs to be comprehensive. We need a very good database for every section of the Smart Grid.

Another issue involves connecting electricity from renewable resources, such as solar and wind, into the grid. Adding power from renewables, especially during periods of high renewable generation, can impair the functioning of the transmission system. This issue is creating new challenges for power engineers. 

We also need to keep the energy supply chain secure. We must protect the grid’s IT technologies, for instance, from hackers who might want to stop renewable energy production or access a utility’s billing information.

How can utilities use computational intelligence (CI) for Smart Grid optimization and planning?

We can use computational intelligence in many ways that benefit Smart Grid owners and users. The technique can be used for power generation, transmission, distribution and consumption applications to achieve safety, security, reliability, resilience and efficiency.  For instance, CI can be used to forecast the amount of renewable energy that might be injected into a grid during a particular time period. We can then use this information to determine how much power production is needed from traditional sources, such as coal.

We can use CI for both short-term and long-term load forecasting. This is particularly important, given that population growth is one of the main factors inspiring the industry to produce more power. Similarly, we can use CI to inform our demand management programs.

CI can be used to help utilities respond to outages caused by natural disasters, such as storms or downed trees, which impact high-voltage transmission lines. When incorporated in a Smart Grid, CI can detect asymmetric single-phase-to-ground or two-phase-to-ground faults or symmetric three-phase to-ground faults and determine where the faults have occurred in the transmission and distribution system. This is a significant attribute in any power system.

CI can also be applied in conjunction with sensor networks to monitor power quality. If a power quality issue occurs, the system will alert the administrator, who can then take the steps necessary to address the problem. CI can be used to monitor power losses from the grid. These losses usually average about 7% of a country’s power production but in some countries, like South Africa, the losses represent about 17%.  CI can not only monitor the losses but figure out the cause.

Finally, utilities can use CI to optimize the real-time process of purchasing energy from multiple suppliers based on price, variable rate or other data for recent or forecasted time periods. They can identify the best suppliers through CI as well.

Smart Grids need robust and dynamic security systems. How is CI used to meet these security needs?

In computer networks, many attacks are known to us. For example, denial-of-service (DoS) attacks are known attacks. We understand these attacks and can apply technologies and systems to help protect our networks against them. But how can we stop unknown attacks? CI is an algorithmic approach that responds to the unknown in the way human beings respond to problems they haven’t encountered before: the system uses the knowledge it has already acquired from previous experiences to develop a new mechanism to help stop the new attack. 

This is the beauty of CI and why it has value in Smart Grid networks.  Moreover, because CI acquires and learns from traditional attack information, it will study a new attack and compare it to previous attacks. It will alert the network manager or administrator that the attack has occurred and that the system has stopped it. Even if a very strong unknown attack occurs in the Smart Grid and CI fails to stop it, the system will instantly alert the network manager that further action is required.  So CI can determine how to address unknown attacks and it also automatically provides warnings when needed.

How will Smart Grids employ cloud computing and data mining technologies?

Cloud computing has many useful applications in Smart Grid and data mining is one of its most significant attributes. For example, a Smart Grid continuously generates huge volumes of data about the weather, solar or wind characteristics, network security, people’s electricity consumption and how much electrical power people add from their own roof-top systems to the grid. Utilities need to store that data and cloud computing is the solution for that.

Once Smart Grid data is stored in the cloud, utilities must be able to make use of it. They will rely on data mining techniques to develop knowledge from the Smart Grid raw data. They will use the data to determine the relationship between demand and supply or to explain customer impressions or opinions about their Smart Grid services. So cloud computing, data mining, and Smart Grid are all very closely related.

What is the relationship between the Internet of Things and Smart Grid? How should utilities take advantage of this interrelationship?

The Internet of Things brings connectivity to any object, whether the object is an element in the Smart Grid, a person or any other physical entity. It has the capability to automatically transfer data over a network without any human or human-to-computer interaction. It uses a combination of wireless technologies, micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and the Internet. 

I’m sure the Internet of Things will play a significant role in Smart Grid. It will be used in network safety management, network operations and maintenance. It will be used to monitor the security of the Smart Grid, to manage end user interactions, and many other things.  

The Internet of Things is not just a big world of connected devices, it’s also a tool that we can use to implement our dream, which is called Smart Grid.

What advice would you like to offer to utilities as they advance their Smart Grid strategies?

In order to meet the growing demand for electricity, we cannot be afraid of these new systems. We need to accept and use the technologies we have available to us. It doesn’t matter if your company is based in the western world or in a developing country.  The technology is ready for implementation. It can be applied to existing power grids to create Smart Grids that will help society meet its growing demands for electricity. The Smart Grid concept will also help us save our wonderful, beautiful green world.

I mentioned it earlier that Smart Grid can be described as 50% traditional grid and 50% modernized ICT.  So to make our Smart Grid dream come true, people from both communities need to work together. ICT experts, statisticians, and mathematicians need to collaborate with people from the engineering side of the business to make the Smart Grid succeed.

Shawkat Ali is a senior lecturer in the school of engineering and technology at Central Queensland University in Australia. He has authored more than 110 scientific papers in the areas of computational intelligence, data mining, cloud computing and Smart Grid.  He works on renewable energy forecasting for grid operation, Smart Grid security and grid storage.