Interview with Steve Collier

Steve Collier 0514Steve Collier is a well-known expert on energy / telecommunications / information technologies. He is an electric utility industry thought and practice leader who consults, writes, speaks and teaches on the development of modern, intelligent electric grids (“smart grid”).

Steve has worked as a professional, executive, board member, consultant for energy, telecommunications, technology, and consulting firms in the US and abroad, including Houston Lighting & Power, Power Technologies, Inc, Sandia National Laboratories, C H Guernsey & Co, Cap Rock Electric Cooperative, New West Resources, The Institute for Management Development & Change, National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, Util-LINK, and Milsoft Utility Solutions, NRECA, APPA, NEMA. He is a career long member of IEEE starting as the chair of the student chapter at the University of Houston.

Past member of the board of directors of the IEEE Industry Application Society, Past Chair of the IEEE IAS Rural Electric Power Committee, IEEE Smart Grid Education and Marketing Committees, Member of the IEEE Smart Grid Operations Committee and past member IEEE Smart Grid Steering Committee.


In this interview, Steve answers questions from Session 2 of his tutorial, Distributed Energy Resources Require & Enable a Smart Electric Grid, originally presented on April 21st.

I remember you mentioned Nikola Tesla last presentation. Do you believe that his technology would be recognized as a DER?

Nikola Tesla referred to “free energy” in two contexts:

(1) Some day, it would be possible to extract limitless energy freely from the universe at any point in the universe. This concept is today related to what the quantum physicists call “zero point energy”. They believe that all the energy in the universe is balanced at zero at every point in the universe. It’s related to subatomic particles acting as waves, “blinking” in and out of existence. If this zero point balance could be disrupted, and the resulting energy from the imbalance captured, the potential supply could be infinite. If this is actually possible, it would be the ultimate distributed energy resource . . . free energy anywhere, anytime, anywhere.

(2) It is possible to transmit energy freely through the air without the need for copper wires. Marconi had demonstrated this with radio waves before Tesla demonstrated a version of this with his “Tesla Coils”, first at Pike’s Peak and then in New York, Large amounts of energy were discharged in an arc and the electromagnetic field created was sufficient to light a bulb. We actually see a version of this concept today with wireless phone chargers. This, too, would be an amazing distributed energy resource, making it possible to obtain energy anywhere from remote sources without the need for wires.

J. P. Morgan and Thomas Edison, whose fortunes relied on physically generated energy generations and copper wire lines were able to defraud and discredit Tesla and run him out of business. He died heartbroken and penniless, never seeing his dreams come to fruition.


What will be the granularity of the control of these smart grids? (group of home, area or other)

We will be talking about the granularity of distributed energy resources in Session 3. It is both an important advantage and daunting challenge. Instead of relying on a relatively small number of extremely large remote generators sending energy over wires to customers, the grid is moving toward an immense number of distributed energy sources, both real and virtual, implemented in small increments dispersed throughout the grid. As we discussed in Session 2, we are moving away from 20,000 very large generating units, as large as hundreds to thousands of megawatts in size, to millions of much smaller distributed real and virtual energy sources. As you recognize in your question, this also poses an important challenge: how can this kind of complex, distributed grid be monitored and controlled? I believe that it will be distributed machine intelligence. Here’s a preview of the answer that we will be discussing in Session 4. We already have a world-wide electrical network made up of literally billions of endpoints that are actively monitored and controlled with machine intelligence. It is the Internet of Things (IoT). It will be the control plane for a smart distributed grid.


Isn't the economy of scale of large generators something interesting? (ignoring carbon emission) Seems like you were saying that electric cars were added generation?

For most of the first century of its existence, the electric grid benefited from generation economies of scope and scale: the bigger the generation unit, the cheaper the energy produced. Furthermore, the efficiency of steam-based power generation steadily improved. However, the maximum possible efficiency of steam-based generation peaked in the late 1970s at about 40%. The effective efficiency was reduced even further by growth in station auxiliary load caused by pollution control equipment and control. New technical, institutional, operational, and economic realities actually resulted in diseconomies of scale. This was most dramatic for nuclear power where cost overruns were legendary. Were we to be able to build the grid from scratch today, it would be with smaller, more efficient, load following generation (e.g., combined cycle natural gas-fired generators).

As regards electric vehicles, they can be considered additional generation in two contexts. First, they are a virtual source, an energy sink that can be remotely controlled. An electric load that is reduced or turned off affects the grid just like electric generation at that location that is increased or turned on. We will talk about this in more detail in Session 4. Second, if connected to the AC grid with an inverter it can provide power into the grid. A battery discharging into the grid is, in effect, an electric generator.


How can the equivalent of state estimation with a billion of DER be achieved?

Unfortunately, I am not an expert in state estimation. I’m not sure to what extent state estimation will be required or even possible for a grid with hundreds of millions, even billions of DERs. That being said, I suspect that conventional state estimation will, in this case, be displaced by distributed artificial intelligence. The grid will become a “self ordering system”, sometimes referred to as swarm intelligence.

Go to IEEE Xplore and check out these and many other scholarly papers on state estimation in the presence of DERs:

  • B. Xie, A. P. S. Meliopoulos, C. Zhong, Y. Liu, L. Sun and J. Xie, "Distributed Quasi-Dynamic State Estimation Incorporating Distributed Energy Resources," 2018 North American Power Symposium (NAPS), Fargo, ND, 2018, pp. 1-6.
  • A Review on Distribution System State Estimation Anggoro Primadianto and Chan-Nan Lu, Fellow, IEEE


On your generation added slide, why did you count an electric vehicle as a generator when you still need to charge them?

An electric vehicle is an energy sink when its battery is being charged. It is also a virtual energy source because, if, while charging, its rate of charge can be increased/decreased or even turned off/on, its effect on the grid is as if a source was decreased/increased or turned on/off. An electric vehicle with a charged battery, if equipped with an inverter can be an energy source or generator.


Why would an EV owner allow you to take charge out of their vehicle for the good of the grid? The vehicle is plugged in to charge it not to provide support.

I don’t think that utilities will be able to unilaterally control the charging or discharging of electric vehicles. Just as is the case for demand side management, there will have to be some form of agreement with the customer with appropriate terms and conditions. EV owners might be willing to allow the utility to control the charging and discharging of their EV in exchange for a financial benefit (e.g., a discount on their bill, a direct payment) or maybe just altruism.


What are the most common DERs in operation today?

I don’t have data on the numbers of DERs deployed on the US grid by type nor on the amount by effective kW rating. Here are interesting articles from last year from Green Tech Media and T&D World which provide some metrics:


How can an electric vehicle be a DER?

Electric vehicles are by and large charged on the electric distribution system. An electric vehicle is an energy sink when its battery is being charged. It is also a virtual energy source because, if, while charging, its rate of charge can be increased/decreased or even turned off/on, its effect on the grid is as if a source was decreased/increased or turned on/off. An electric vehicle with a charged battery, if equipped with an inverter can be an energy source or generator.


Will there be new kinds of DERs?

I’m pretty sure that there will be new kinds of DERs. After all, scientific discovery and innovation never cease. I don’t know what they will be. modular nuclear generators? quantum energy sources? Here’s an interesting article from Georgia Tech on emerging energy technologies.


What is the most unusual DER that you know of?

Of the well-known energy technologies, I think that EVs are the most unusual. They can be both a source or a sink of energy. Thus, they are both a generator and a virtual energy resource. They are mobile, able to consume or generate energy anywhere. This article from Georgia Tech describes some very interesting new energy technologies, almost all of which might be DERs.


How can an energy transaction be a DER?

An energy transaction can be a virtual DER. For example, consider an electric utility customer who wishes to use more renewable energy. One way is for them to install local renewable energy source. Another is to enter into a purchase of renewable energy in a wholesale or retail energy market. Consider the many major name brands that have announced that their goals are to have 100% of their electric energy consumption come from renewables within some time frame. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are actually physically consuming energy directly from a renewable or sustainable source. In many cases this means that they have entered into a transaction with their local utility or another provider who can say that for every kWh of electricity consumed at their site, they have arranged to obtain a kWh of renewable energy from some provider somewhere else on the grid. In another example, the consumer might take their electric vehicle or other energy storage device to a location where it can be charged with renewable or sustainable energy.

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