The Enernet: Smart Grid Visibility and Control

 By Steven E. Collier

The North American electric grid, one of the largest and most complex machines ever created, pales in comparison to the complexity of an emerging new electric network. The century-old grid is proving inadequate in terms of economy, reliability, security, and sustainability. Conventional approaches, adding more generators and transmission lines, are not only not feasible, they won’t address the transformation of a centrally monitored and controlled grid into a distributed grid most of which is not under the control of incumbent utilities. At the same time, another grid, the Internet of Things (IoT), has emerged which is economical, efficient, resilient, and sustainable, even with billions of independent endpoints. It will facilitate visibility and control via an Enernet of Things.

The North American electric grid is a patchwork of five loosely connected synchronous alternating current grids. About 20,000 generating units in some 7,000 power stations supply power and energy. Electricity moves one way from generators through 160,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines and 70,000 substations to remote load centers where it is distributed and delivered to electric consumers through some 150 million meters.

Generation and transmission (i.e., the bulk power grid) has long been a truly smart grid, with comprehensive real-time monitoring and control. Even so, the underlying monitoring and control model has been relatively straightforward. Large central station generation is operated to supply customers’ collective needs within the constraints of the transmission system and subject to the vagaries of weather, equipment failures, operator error, energy markets and other variables. The operation of the emerging smart grid will not be nearly so straightforward, and increasingly driven from the distribution edge.

Why is a new kind of smart grid emerging? The legacy grid model is proving to be inadequate, as the Electric Advisory Committee reported to the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009 in its report “Keeping the Lights On In A New World,”

“. . . the current electric power delivery system infrastructure . . . will be unable to ensure a reliable, cost-effective, secure, and environmentally sustainable supply of electricity for the next two decades . . . Much of the electricity supply and delivery infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.”

The traditional solution would be for the industry to add generation and transmission. However, the 1973 OPEC Oil Embargo proved to be an inflection point that marked a reversal of a century of declining costs and prices, exponential growth in consumption, low capital investment risk, increasing reliability, and environmental indifference. Investment in the bulk power grid declined as customer demand growth stalled and revenue growth abated. At the same time, costs and risk increased and sustainability concerns moved to the fore. Now major outages are on the increase, practically doubling every five years, exacerbated by increasing frequency, duration and severity of major weather events.

As the grid becomes more stressed and outages increase, the visibility and control becomes ever more important. In fact, being able to anticipate and avoid grid outages becomes even more desirable. The increasing threat of cyber and physical attacks on the bulk power grid warrant more sophisticated visibility and control. So does the penetration of non-dispatchable, stochastic output of utility scale renewable energy sources. But all this is only the tip of the iceberg. Even if the long time foundations of the legacy grid were not crumbling, diverse and dramatic new developments are making its monitoring and control obsolete.

Electric utilities actually responded to grid stress in part through a new kind of visibility and control. Smart meters (initially the basis of the term smart grid) were deployed to support demand response programs intended to facilitate reduction of customer demand during peak load periods through voluntary curtailment in response to utility requests or time varying price signals, or through automated control of equipment and appliances. These programs achieved limited penetration and success, but not enough to rehabilitate the grid. They did, however, cause many consumers to be more conscious of energy efficiency and conservation and perhaps more open to new kinds of production, storage and management. At the same time, new and emerging technologies were making them available.

Disruptive enabling technologies are revolutionizing the electric grid and industry. There is a profusion of renewable energy sources, notably wind and solar PV, occasioned by exponential improvement in performance versus cost along with innovative, entrepreneurial business models. Other disruptive, enabling applications are emerging from improved batteries to hyper efficient micro turbines to fuel cells. There are already nearly a million rooftop solar PV systems in place today and the pace of market penetration is accelerating. Research suggests that by 2020 nearly one-third of all operating generation capacity will be customer owned and operated, about half renewable and half conventional backup / supplemental.

As the penetration of distributed energy resources (DER) increases, it becomes more difficult, even impossible for utilities to maintain adequate visibility and control of the grid. Suppose, for example, that 10 percent of all retail customers were to deploy on-site generation, storage, or management systems that affect bulk power grid operations. The number of nodes of interest in the grid would grow by two orders of magnitude from less than 200,000 centrally monitored and controlled assets to nearly 15 million independent assets at the grid edge.

Rapid growth in renewable energy sources, both utility scale and distributed, stress the electric grid. Wind and solar are not dispatchable and cannot automatically follow load. Grid generation must be reduced to accommodate their output, or load must be controlled to match their output, or energy storage must be utilized to time shift their output. This requires new kinds of monitoring, analysis and control. The relatively straightforward, centrally monitored and utility controlled power production and delivery model will be displaced by an extremely complex, distributed system of energy production, storage, management and trade. Visibility and control will not be achieved by traditional, centralized data centers and control centers. Instead, it will only be accomplished through new systems of distributed, autonomous monitoring, analysis, and automation.

How can a system with millions, ultimately billions of independent, autonomous, even stochastic inputs and outputs be monitored and controlled? Fortunately, before the DER revolution hit the electric utility industry, distributed communications and computing revolutionized the information and telecommunications industry. What else in the technology world has grown from the number of customers to tens of billions of endpoints? The Internet of Things (IoT) has. Cisco has suggested the by 2030 there will be more 50 billion things connected to it worldwide. It is, in fact, the ultimate smart grid: powerful, reliable, resilient, efficient, and economical all because it is a distributed system of multitudinous, independent endpoints connected by real-time, two-way, digital communications.

Robert Metcalfe, inventor of the Ethernet and smart grid guru has said, “Like the Internet, energy will be distributed; there will be a layered architecture that provides flexibility; and energy should be cheap and abundant like bandwidth is becoming.” Days after his 62nd birthday he observed, “Over the past 63 years we met world needs for cheap and clean information by building the Internet. Over the next 63 years we will meet world needs for cheap and clean energy by building the Enernet.” Visibility and control will be achieved for the emerging smart grid through the convergence of the grid with the IoT.

For a downloadable copy of April 2016 eNewsletter which includes this article, please visit the IEEE Smart Grid Resource Center.




Steve Collier is Director of Smart Grid Strategies at Milsoft Utility Solutions. He is Milsoft’s resident \ expert and industry thought leader, who as a nationally recognized thought leader writes, speaks and consults on issues, technologies and applications for a modern intelligent grid. Beginning at Houston Lighting & Power in the early 1970s, he has worked as a professional, executive or consultant with energy, telecommunications and technology companies in the US and abroad. Steve has B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Houston and Purdue University, respectively. Collier is an IEEE Technical Expert on new and emerging energy, telecom and information technologies and their applications for a modern, intelligent grid. Connect with Steve on LinkedIn. Follow Steve on Twitter @smartgridman and his blog at

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