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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Anjan Bose

Anjan BoseAnjan Bose is an IEEE Smart Grid Technical Expert and an IEEE Fellow. He has received the IEEE Herman Halperin Electric Transmission & Distribution Award; the IEEE Outstanding Power Engineering Educator Award; and the IEEE Third Millennium Medal.

Anjan Bose recently served as a senior advisor to the undersecretary of energy at the Department of Energy. He also served on DOE’s Grid Tech Team, which was directed to coordinate DOE’s Smart Grid research and develop a plan to accelerate grid modernization. In this interview, Dr. Bose discusses the need for a holistic approach to Smart Grid research. He calls for greater investment in grid-focused R&D and for a closer connection between government policies and the technologies that impact the grid.

Question: You recently completed your appointment as a member of the Department of Energy’s Grid Tech Team. Tell us about the team and its work.

The main purposes of the Grid Tech Team were to coordinate DOE’s many internal activities that pertain to the grid and to come up with a plan that would make sure the department’s R&D efforts are best aligned to support a long-term vision for the electricity system.

The team also developed a long-term vision for this future system to guide the department’s work. The vision builds on DOE’s previous Smart Grid vision, which has been published on the DOE web site for some time. Among other things, the future grid will handle a much higher percentage of renewable resources and many more storage devices. As more such new technologies are incorporated, the distribution system will have to be upgraded to accommodate two-way power flows. And consumers will have a lot more information about their services, rates and the ability to interact directly with power companies. All of this development will require a more sophisticated overlay of communications and computers to manage the grid.

The Grid Tech Team focused on trying to figure out how to achieve this vision and identifying the various roles that DOE’s R&D and other activities will need to play to help the country advance the grid to this level.

In your opinion, what is the most important message to come from all of this work?

The Grid Tech Team recognized that we need to convince people within DOE and outside DOE that the grid is actually the integrator of all technologies, new and old, that will be part of the system. Millions of components are electrically connected to form the grid. Therefore, it's not possible to solve the grid’s problems without looking at the grid as a system and in a holistic way. That was our main message.

Similarly, you cannot work on grid problems in piecemeal fashion. If you make changes to the distribution side of a Smart Grid, it will impact what you do on the transmission side, and vice versa. If you change the percentage of renewable energy in the system, it will have repercussions on the operational stability of the whole grid.

As in most research organizations, the DOE is organized by individual component R&D units, such as research on wind generation, customer rooftop solar systems, microgrids, or the integration of commercial building systems, to give a few examples. As a result, there is little coordination between these units to look at the big picture. Yet these activities really are tightly related to one another and the work must be coordinated to achieve the Smart Grid vision they all share. The main message was the need to bring these teams together in a common vision.

How will the grid itself handle the interdependencies between technologies and systems?

We know the direction in which the grid is evolving and its key trends. We can effectively predict the size of the grid in terms of power generation and capacity needed, but it is absolutely necessary that the grid have the capability to handle any combination of resources used and impacts on the system.

For example, we can't exactly predict which resources will contribute to the grid in five or 10 years. Five years ago nobody predicted the amount of gas turbines that would be on the electrical system today. But gas turbines have come onto the system at such a rate that utilities are able to shut down coal plants much faster than they expected.

Today, we don't really know which specific areas of the country will have more wind generation compared to other areas. We don't know for sure which geographic areas will have more microgrids for resiliency during major storms, though we know these will become increasingly necessary. So we have to make the grid flexible enough to handle the evolution to a future that is subject to a lot of variability and uncertainties. We know the general direction the grid is taking, but its eventual make-up and characteristics will be influenced by things we can’t predict.

How should participants in the U.S. electric power ecosystem channel their R&D to best position the country for the Smart Grid?

My personal opinion is that the U.S. continues to lead the world in the conceptual development of the Smart Grid but turning this into reality has been difficult. One factor is the huge investment needed to modernize the grid although the stimulus funding in this area did seed such investment. Another factor is that we are not spending enough on grid-related research to be able to quickly integrate all the new technologies we are developing.

For example, the R&D funding on grid-related research is less than 10% of all electric energy R&D within DOE. This proportion is too small to solve the grid issues involved in integrating new technologies. The European Union, for comparison, spends a higher proportion on grid-related research, and China even significantly more.

The power industry also needs to establish grid innovation as a primary R&D goal. Currently the private sector is also focusing its R&D on technologies like wind and solar rather than the grid. This is shortsighted. Certainly we need wind and solar and federal and state subsidies have also supported this work, but power companies have not lobbied sufficiently for grid research. Consequently, policymakers and funding entities assume that grid-related research is either unimportant or not that difficult, and that’s not the case.

What is the interrelationship between technology R&D and policymaking? Should this be strengthened to help push the grid forward?

The interrelationship is so significant, especially in such a highly regulated enterprise as the country’s power system, that the biggest hurdle in turning R&D into actual deployment is public policy. Just a small number of technical people have a say in the policy arena, and this is not good. Lack of informed technical input into the policymaking process often creates policies that are based on expectations that cannot be met. Policymaking would be much more effective if more technical people were involved instead of just politicians, lawyers, and economists.

To give an obvious example, the Obama administration has been keen to increase the amount of renewable energy on the power grid. But we have seen that increases in wind generation in the northwest, for example, have created new difficulties in coordinating the availability of wind with available water resources. This was not anticipated and illustrates how regulations can be implemented without actually considering technical issues that might crop up.

The interrelationship is recognized by both federal and state governments but the fragmented regulatory system in the U.S. makes it difficult to facilitate the required changes in policies. Moreover, closing the gap between technological progress and institutional issues will require closer coordination between the researchers and the policymakers. I think you'll see more of this taking place. From the perspective of the Grid Tech Team, the R&D at DOE will have to work hand-in-hand with policy to push the grid forward.

The Grid Tech Team formulated a roadmap to guide R&D for modernizing the grid. Could you characterize this roadmap for us?

We looked at grid modernization in a global way that does not separate out research activities according to specific technology components. We suggested six general areas of research.

On the operations side, we recommended developing next generation control centers that utilize new information technologies, like phasor measurement units, to coordinate operations no matter what components are deployed on the grid in the near- or long-term. We also pushed to develop new equipment and methods that can be used on the grid to better control the amount of power flowing on individual transmission lines.

On the distribution side, we want to make the system smarter and more resilient overall so that it can handle more microgrids, electric vehicles, storage devices, and other technologies. More communication and computation capabilities, as in the utilization of smart meters, will help serve this need. More research is also needed to understand how to integrate multiple systems and technologies, such as microgrids, into the distribution system.

Looking at the grid overall, we need more design and planning tools. Much R&D is needed to develop analytical tools that can handle uncertainties, such as wind and solar resource availability, changing weather patterns, and cybersecurity or physical security threats.

We also need to study institutional issues that impact the grid and technology deployments. It’s become more and more obvious that you can't do this type of technology R&D without paying significant amount of attention to laws, market regulations, regulatory authorities and even reliability standards. We must consider the institutional changes that must be achieved to overcome these barriers.

How can DOE and industry better address institutional barriers?

It is not enough to just conduct technical R&D and publish it or make it available. The grid research done at DOE and other organizations is significant but industry is not benefitting from all of it because the pathway to deployment and implementation is not clear. When DOE’s research has not been used, it always comes down to institutional barriers in a particular state or geography.

DOE has always been engaged with regional interconnection agencies, utility commissions and national organizations such as the National Association of the Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. But we need to have research agencies like DOE more engaged with the policymakers in regional initiatives that directly engage stakeholders to get technologies deployed on the grid.

Anjan Bose is a Regents professor and distinguished professor of electric power engineering at Washington State University, where he also served as the dean of the college of engineering and architecture from 1998 to 2005. He is a leading researcher on the operation and control of the electric power grid. He has worked in the electric power industry as well as academia for more than 40 years and has consulted for many electric power companies and advised government agencies throughout the world.