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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Massoud Amin

Massoud AminMassoud Amin, Director of the University of Minnesota’s Technological Leadership Institute and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. A senior member of IEEE, he chairs the IEEE Control Systems Society’s Technical Committee on Smart Grids, and serves as the chairman of the IEEE Smart Grid Newsletter.

In this interview, Massoud Amin articulates lessons learned one year after Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impacts on the eastern United States. Amin discusses broad, societal concerns, engineering challenges, consumer issues and grid modernization proposals from two affected utilities.

Question: What did we learn from Hurricane Sandy’s impacts on dozens of utilities and millions of people? Did smart grid play a role in reducing impacts and/or restoring power?

We learned several lessons, some related to the “big picture,” some more pertinent to individual utilities and service territories. I have little doubt that utilities that integrated smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs) prior to the storm were better equipped to understand outage locations and to respond. Yet we also were reminded that no amount of money or technology can prevent an outage under massive, physical assault.

That said, investments in grid hardening, reliability and resiliency will pay dividends. We have the technology today to lessen the impacts of extreme weather and, not incidentally, improve overall system performance on “blue sky days.” But we must act upon the lessons learned. That’s a challenge of political will and public policy that relies on leadership from many quarters.

Let’s start with the big picture lessons and work toward the particulars. What are the broader lessons from Sandy?

Though money and technology cannot prevent all outages, it’s also true that the application of probabilistic risk assessment to a particular service territory will reveal myriad ways to harden it and make it more reliable and resilient. Those steps must be cost effective and fit a sound business plan that can be articulated to stakeholders, particularly regulators and consumers.

Regulators, consumers and other stakeholders need to ask themselves several fundamental questions: What quality of life do we expect in the 21st century? Are we willing to make significant investments today to modernize our grid for economic prosperity going forward? What are the consequences of taking no action?

We simply must invest in our electric infrastructure. Our current level of grid performance is slipping due to aging infrastructure and new challenges, such as extreme weather. Merely coping with outages is not viable; in fact, it reflects a defeatist mindset.

Our country has under-invested in its power infrastructure. According to a World Economic Forum report (2011), the U.S. electric power sector is ranked below 30th in the world for power quality and reliability. Outages and power quality issues cost the U.S. economy between $119 billion to $188 billion annually, according to a 2001 study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Major outages in this country doubled between 2001 and 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The bulk of outages affecting consumers is weather-related. We have work to do.

In Sandy’s case, what specifically can we do to avoid outages of the magnitude we witnessed?

Let’s define the threat. Hurricane Sandy was the third of three major storms that included Tropical Storm Irene and “Snow-tober” in 2011. All three delivered a range of impacts, from high winds to flooding to widespread vegetation-related damage. We must not focus too tightly on Sandy’s impact alone.

With the range of potential impacts in mind, every utility would benefit from making probabilistic risk assessments that will reveal their system’s weaknesses. The three options include hardening, reliability and resiliency. “Hardening” means improving the ability of physical assets to withstand a physical assault. Reliability is measured by traditional indices that reflect the frequency and duration of outages. Resiliency is a measure of the system’s ability to bounce back to normal operations after an impact.

What forms should hardening and improved reliability and resiliency take?

Hardening, for instance, might mean that substations in flood-prone areas should be optimized for location and design and construction standards against floods – especially for underground substations in, say, New York City. The design standards for feeders should be improved to the level applied to higher voltage lines. Selective undergrounding for critical lines may be cost effective. New materials can make power poles sturdier and cables more resilient.

For reliability and resilience, smart grid technologies will help. The application of sensors, from phasor measurement units in the substation, down the feeder to smart meters at the premise will provide rich data for monitoring performance and the impacts of anomalous events. The overlay of a digital communications network to augment traditional SCADA systems will convey that data to distributed intelligence as well as operators and carry commands back to devices in the field.

Designing distribution networks in loop, rather than radial, arrangements allows greater sectionalizing, which in turn improves the specificity of fault detection, isolation and restoration (FDIR). That will keep the power on for unaffected businesses and homes and allow utilities to focus on damaged portions of the network. Automated switches and reclosers can speed the FDIR response beyond human capabilities and that will produce the self-healing abilities that characterize smart grid.

What role does software play?

A technology roadmap that addresses reliability and resiliency will rely on software programs such as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), an outage management system (OMS), advanced distribution management systems (A-DMS) and geographic information systems (GIS). These systems must be integrated and the results delivered visually, in dashboards, to aid human decision-making.

One of the outputs must include estimated time of restoration (ETR), via social networks, to keep customers informed. They need to know what to expect to plan their own responses, and that actually influences customer satisfaction.

All of this requires data analytics, which will lead to improved operations and emergency responses. Ultimately, data analytics will generate insights that bolster proactive practices, from condition-based asset management to proactive vegetation management.

What other steps might reduce the impacts of extreme weather events on communities as well as individual consumers?

Strategically, it would behoove communities to prioritize power reliability for public infrastructure such as street lights, shelters, police, fire and hospital facilities. This would help maintain civil order and essential operations under chaotic conditions. Microgrids and distributed generation could “island” large end-users to maintain their capabilities when the grid fails. Microgrids also enable centralized grids to shed loads. Homes and businesses could also use distributed generation and energy storage to restore power. In time, home energy management systems will prioritize home loads for everyday efficiencies and in emergencies.

Would you describe the value proposition for consumers, as well as society, for investments that lead to a harder, more reliable and resilient grid?

Economic analyses demonstrate that investments in power infrastructure deliver value that exceeds costs, in terms of greater reliability and improved resiliency in the short term and longer-term economic growth, including job creation. For individual consumers, less extensive, shorter outages from extreme weather and improved, everyday reliability are likely to be highly valued in an increasingly digital society. Economically, the societal payback for each dollar invested ranges from $2.80 to $6, based on my own research as well as work by EPRI.

Let’s address traditional reliability indices. Using IEEE models, as well as my experience at military bases with 20,000-50,000 inhabitants and cities with 500,000 to one million population, we’ve seen improvements in SAIDI (System Average Interruption Duration Index) and SAIFI (System Average Interruption Frequency Index) of 12-14 percent at the low end, and 30-40 percent at the high end. In a conservative forecast, CAIDI (Customer Average Interruption Duration Index) holds steady and at the higher end it can be improved 17-18 percent.

The proper measure of grid modernization is how these indices improve for blue sky days, not during anomalous events such as Sandy. So preparing for another Sandy pays dividends in reliability and resiliency under typical conditions.

Have any eastern utilities proposed to take these steps?

Yes. I can offer two examples. Consolidated Edison (ConEd) Co. of New York City and Public Service Electric & Gas (PSEG) based in Newark, New Jersey, both saw extensive damage to their grids and extended outages for their customers.

ConEd has presented its “Post Sandy Enhancement Plan” to spend $250 million on a hardening program for Orange and Rockland counties that relies on many measures I’ve outlined. In contrast, PSEG has floated a nearly $4 billion proposal (the “Energy Strong Program Petition”) for a five-year plan, which must be approved by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. PSEG’s proposal includes budgets of $2.8 billion for electric infrastructure and $1.2 billion for natural gas.

In general, most fully funded smart grid-focused roadmaps could be accomplished in one to two years, with systems integration to achieve full value taking another year or two. Many of us are watching to see how ConEd’s and PSEG’s proposals are received.

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.