Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Smart Grid Features

The Smart Grid is a collection of technologies, all communicating and interacting with each other, grid operators, producers, and consumers. Utilizing the existing infrastructure and adding functionality to it, the overall feature set of Smart Grids is significantly greater than the sum of its component parts as, with every new individual technology integrated into the whole, new synergistic benefits develop. While these benefits are what the Smart Grid actually offers, it is prudent to first look at the major components of Smart Grids before delving into how they interact with one another.


Metering technology is the foundation upon which Smart Grids function. Smart meters measure and analyze electricity usage, constantly communicate the data they collect to central locations, and, differentiating them from past technologies, are capable of two-way communication with the grid as a whole, influencing and being influenced by other components in the Smart Grid. Advanced Metering Infrastructure, AMI, is the networking of devices and protocols that allows for this two-way communication, representing the collective advances in metering and communications technologies.

One immediate result of this improvement in metering is the potential for a shift away from flat-rate fees for electricity in favor of time-of-use pricing, where the cost of using electricity reflects the cost of producing that electricity at that very moment, financially incentivizing the voluntary shifting of demand away from peak hours, and, due to the nuances of how electricity is generated, making the grid as a whole more efficient and stable as well as lowering the overall cost of electricity for everybody.

Furthermore, the information provided by constant and automated metering is of great value to both customers and utilities. Customers see their electrical usage in more detail than before, as well as the current price of electricity, giving them greater awareness of and control over how, when, and at what price they use electricity. Utilities and grid operators benefit from the constant flow of information from automated metering through reduced operating costs, improved customer service (and therefore satisfaction), immediate identification of trouble spots, more accurate predictions of grid conditions in the future, and more informed planning for further infrastructural improvements. Appropriately, the benefits gained by utilities go on to positively affect customers.


Demand Response and Dynamic Demand are a group of technologies reacting to the overall balance of supply and demand in an electrical grid by utilizing the features of individual devices to adjust both supply and demand to a more optimal balance. Reacting to PMUs sensing the grid’s electrical frequency or signals from the grid passed through the AMI, Demand Response technologies alter the functioning of compliant devices to reduce or reschedule demand, increase supply, or even increase demand, depending on the grid’s needs at any given moment, serving to stabilize the grid and reduce the likelihood of service disruptions or equipment damage, as well as both decreasing costs and increasing efficiency.

One example of these technologies is light dimming, with new ballasts capable of automatically reducing the brightness of fluorescent lights by an acceptable percentage in response to either a request from the grid or a financial incentive. While the consumption of each individual light is miniscule, the cumulative demand of lighting systems in a city represents more than enough demand to warrant serious attention. Similarly, the electrical usage of many home appliances can be slightly reduced for short periods without any adverse effects on their functioning, all the while, in unison, representing a significant reduction in demand on the electrical grid. Cooling and heating systems are especially applicable here.

In general, the ability to reduce demand by a certain amount is as useful as the ability to increase supply by that same amount in terms of stability, with the added benefit of reducing costs and infrastructural requirements.


Smart Grids include a series of features designed to improve stability and mitigate the effects of unavoidable damage. As mentioned, Demand Response seeks to balance demand and supply across the grid. However, what Demand Response addresses is not the only concern of grid operators, as potential problems range from downed trees, unexpected failures at power plants, or even attacks by malevolent parties.

The extensive metering network can identify problematic conditions before any service disruption or equipment damage occurs, act accordingly, and prevent issues that today would need independent resolutions. This ranges from pattern recognition, the nuanced identification of grid conditions that are known to precede problems, combined with preemptive solutions, to immediate damage control, such as the sectioning off of damaged areas to prevent the spread of damage.

While the responses mentioned so far have all been either remote or automatic, not everything can be done remotely, e.g., the Smart Grid can’t remove a fallen tree from a power line. The information provided by the Smart Grid also illuminates those problems that can only be resolved by dispatching repairmen, both reducing the time delay between the occurrence of a problem and when the repairmen know about it and providing them with more information before they arrive at the scene.

This way, whether the problem is a surge in demand, a fallen tree, a power plant failure, or an attack, the Smart Grid can mitigate or even completely eliminate service disruptions or (additional) equipment damage.

Security and Standards

Recognizing that improperly designed Smart Grids are vulnerable security risks, the involved industries have collaborated to assemble a large collection of standards, detailing secure protocols, mechanisms, and procedures for equipment interconnecting distributed resources with electric power systemscommunication networks and systems in substations, power system management and the associated information exchange, distributed networks, intelligent electronic devices, advanced metering infrastructure, as well as the integration and upgrading of relevant existing standards, such as those developed by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) or those for home area networks. Standards also carry the role of promoting interoperability, assuring that not only will Smart Grid components be resistant against unauthorized access, but that they will readily connect with those devices with whom they are supposed to interface with in order to function properly. NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is one of the driving forces behind standards development with its Smart Grid Interoperability Panel. NIST also releases drafts of the NIST Framework 2.0, encouraging public feedback and allowing everybody to contribute to the resulting set of standards.

As one example of collaboration, two standards developing organizations, ASHRAE, the American Society for Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, and NEMA, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (both accredited by and members of ANSI, the American National Standards Institute), work together to develop the Facility Smart Grid Information Model, which “define[s] an object-oriented information model to enable appliances and control systems in homes, buildings, and industrial facilities to manage electrical loads and generation sources in response to communication with a “smart” electrical grid and communicate information about those electrical loads to utility and other electrical service providers.”

As one of the biggest obstacles to overcome when developing and installing a Smart Grid is sorting out the standards necessary for security, interoperability, and functionality, the current level of cooperation is an important step in the right direction.


Another feature of the Smart Grid is its capacity for the integration of a wide variety of technologies that can’t or aren’t being fully utilized at the moment. Largest in apparent scale among these are intermittent energy sources, with the Smart Grid’s ability to influence the demand of electricity within the grid allowing greater penetration of power generation utilizing wind or solar. Distributed, small-scale sources of energy connected to the grid can collectively function as a virtual reserve power plant. Additionally, the use of geographically distributed wind and solar power sources can smooth out the variability that large-scale wind and solar farms are normally subject to. Energy storage can also be drawn from to bolster the virtual reserve provided by small scale electrical generation, drawing electricity during periods of low demand and returning it back to the grid during periods of high demand.

The Smart Grid also cooperates with new and currently emerging technologies. In many cases, the standards guiding the Smart Grid were designed with future upgradeability as a requirement, providing the framework for integration with new technologies. Electric cars are one example of an emerging technology. They, like any other cars, spend a lot of their time parked. However, unlike today’s gasoline-driven cars, electric cars have batteries that can be made to function as a vast distributed network of electrical storage.


Rather than merely serving as the distribution network between power plants and consumers, Smart Grids transform the electrical grid into an active participant. In terms of developing infrastructure, the Smart Grid’s features reduce the need for the construction and maintenance of additional power plants, transmission lines, etc…, eliminating both the immediate expenses as well as having to find and secure the necessary land. In terms of existing infrastructure, Smart Grids squeeze more functionality out of what already exists. Themselves a collection of advances, Smart Grids provide the framework necessary for further advancement, bringing our infrastructure more in line with what it can potentially be.

Click to see an ANSI press release discussing recent developments in the Smart Grid standardization effort.
This is the third article in a series about Smart Grids, each of which can be read independently.
The first article is an introduction to the concept of a Smart Grid.
The second article explains the generation of electricity.
The fourth article delves into Demand Response and its economic effects.
Also, a previously published and updated list of standards for Smart Grid Interoperability.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Generating Electricity

Understanding the extent of the benefits offered by Smart Grids requires first understanding the source of the electricity running through the grid. Electricity generating power plants differ in many ways: the forms of energy they harness, rates of efficiency, maximum output capacity, ability to vary their output, byproducts, geographical requirements/restrictions, construction, operating, and maintenance costs, etc…, and, while all of these are important considerations in the overall analysis of an electrical grid’s infrastructure, somewhat limiting the scope of analysis renders the benefits of an extensive Smart Grid readily apparent.

Differentiating between power plants based on rates of efficiency, operating costs, and the ability to vary their output, the major players can be loosely divided into four groups: base load power plants, peaking power plants, load following power plants, and intermittent sources. Frequently, a single source of energy will fall into more than one category as different technologies harness it to generate electricity in varying ways. For example, different designs of hydroelectric power plants fall into all four categories.

Types of Power Generation

Base load power plants are the foundation of most electrical grids. Typically, they are large, able to efficiently harness their fuel of choice, and, relative to the large amounts of electricity they produce, inexpensive to maintain. They run throughout the year, at all times of the day and only have limited, if any, ability to safely and expediently vary their output, providing electricity at a stable rate. Typical examples are nuclear and coal power plants.

Peaking power plants, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. They do not run all the time, nor are they cheap or efficient to operate. However, their ability to increase the supply of electricity at a moment’s notice makes them invaluable for handling either unexpected surges in demand or expected peaks, like the high loads typical of hot summer afternoons. Gas turbines are the principle example of this sort of power plant. Small-scale generators, such as those used as emergency backups, are similar in their properties, chosen primarily for their ability to immediately supply needed electricity.

Load following power plants occupy the middle-ground. They are able to vary their output in response to changes in demand, but not as quickly as peaking power plants. Similarly, their efficiency and operating costs are between those of base load and peaking power plants. Load following power plants are frequently very similar to base load power plants with the added ability of being able to supply additional electricity in times of need, achieved either by curtailing their own output during standard operating modes (reserve capacity) or by storing energy during periods of low demand and releasing it during peak demand. For example, many hydroelectric power plants with large reservoirs are able to significantly vary the amount of water they pass through their turbines or even use up electricity during periods of low demand to raise their water level, adding potential energy to their reserve for times of peak demand. In the case of nuclear power plants, some designs allow for curtailing power output, whereas others do not have such capabilities.

Intermittent sources of power are a special but applicable category here; wind and solar, among others, provide electricity without any ongoing fuel costs, so, while efficiency can be measured with regard to how much energy is available and how much electricity is then generated and fed into the grid, this can’t be directly compared to the efficiency of power plants using fuels like gas or coal where the fuel must be continuously purchased. The drawback to these intermittent sources of power is in the constant variability and thus unreliability of the source of their energy. Some designs manage to mitigate the impact of this drawback by utilizing some form of energy storage to smooth variability in output.

While it doesn’t fit neatly into this sort of grouping, decentralized and distributed power generation plays a steadily increasing role in today’s electrical grids. While each individual power source is generally miniscule, their combined capacity is significant and, when fully utilized, presents a viable alternative to the established system of relying solely on large, centralized power plants.


Stability in an electrical grid is vital, with the supplied electricity needing to match the level of demand as closely as possible at any given moment. Additionally, due to inefficiencies in the transmission of electricity over large distances, it is also important to maintain the balance of supply and demand at every point in the electrical grid. Deviation from this equilibrium is undesirable, with large deviations resulting in instability and, in extreme cases, blackouts. What this translates to is that maintaining grid stability is not accomplished simply by having a maximum capacity exceeding that of peak demand, as that would be easily accomplished with the construction and constant use of a multitude of base load power plants, but rather by having a network of infrastructure capable of quickly changing the amount of supply to match constantly fluctuating levels of consumer demand ranging from the dead of night up to and surpassing expected peak demand, essentially necessitating the frequent use of inefficient peaking power plants.

Fulfilling Demand

When the grid fulfills demand for electricity, there is a specific order to the preferred utilization of suppliers. Base load power plants are used first as they provide the cheapest electricity, though this is somewhat misleading as, generally, they are always operating and therefore always being used. Load following plants then scale their output to match the remaining demand as best as they can. Peaking power plants are used as a last resort to supply additional electricity when demand outpaces supply by too large a margin or too suddenly for load following power plants to keep up. Additionally, peaking power plants are used to compensate for sudden decreases in supply due to the variability of intermittent sources or unexpected failures elsewhere in the grid.

Overall Infrastructure

The use of peaking power plants, while necessary, leads to significant expenses for both grid operators and consumers. Smart Grids come into play by employing various technologies to reduce demand, reschedule (delay) demand, or even increase supply as the situation calls for it. In terms of balancing supply and demand during peak demand conditions in the grid, the reduction of demand by a certain amount is as effective as increasing supply by that same amount, turning the ability of the Smart Grid to reduce demand into a virtual power plant. Addressing the use of peaking power plants to handle surges in demand, the Smart Grid’s ability to automatically and immediately reduce demand counteracts surges, slowing surges down to the point where load following power plants can fulfill the demand. Additionally, the same mechanisms come into play when dealing with sudden, unexpected drops in supply. As a result, fewer costly peaking power plants need to be constructed.

Essentially representing the infrastructure itself, the Smart Grid fundamentally changes the established approach to electrical grids and power generation, ushering in new technologies and allowing methods of power generation that were off limits earlier. As a whole, the Smart Grid’s mechanisms simultaneously make the network of already existing power plants more efficient, involve decentralized power generation in a significant way, and guide the development of further infrastructure.

This is the second article in a series about Smart Grids, each of which can be read independently.
The first article is an introduction to the concept of a Smart Grid.
The third article goes into greater detail about Smart Grid features.
The fourth article delves into Demand Response and its economic effects.
Also, a previously published and updated list of standards for Smart Grid Interoperability

Smart Grid

While descriptions of Smart Grids vary based upon the exact set of features a particular implementation includes and its scale, the single defining and unifying characteristic of Smart Grids is the ability to constantly monitor changes in both the supply and demand of electricity by individual consumers and/or producers within the electrical grid and immediately respond to those changes in ways far exceeding the capabilities of today’s electrical grids. At a fundamental level, Smart Grids count among their advantages over today’s grids greatly increased efficiency, stability, and the potential for more integration and inclusion of a greater number of devices. More broadly, Smart Grids are at once the framework for and inseparable from various technological advantages that greatly increase our ability to manage electricity, from its generation to its eventual consumption.

Technological Advantages

The application of technological advantages is at the heart of Smart Grid initiatives, seeking to fill the gap between when electric grids were first built and the advances that have since been embraced by modern electronics.

First, an extensive network of automated meters capable of instant and constant communication is required. Such a network provides extraordinary amounts of data, providing both consumers and producers with up-to-date information on their own involvement in the grid as well as information about the grid as a whole. Aside from the intrinsic value of information and the insights gained from its analysis, the wealth of data serves as a prerequisite for other advancements.

Interactivity is a major facet of the Smart Grid as well. While technologies already exist that can be used to respond to changes in the state of electrical grids, they are in many cases hindered by the time delay between when a change occurs and when information about it is dispersed. Other mechanisms aren’t automated and instead rely on human operators, further slowing the process down. Alternatively, some fully automated mechanisms only function locally, cut off from the grid as a whole. Automated mechanisms, when coupled with timely and accurate information furnished by the network of intercommunication intrinsic to a Smart Grid, bring an unprecedented level of to both grid operators and consumers, reacting to changing grid conditions as soon as they occur if not preemptively.

Another major benefit of the Smart Grid is in the increased integration with various power production and storage methods. As the Smart Grid is better able to react to changes in supply and demand, it is therefore also better able to integrate additional sources of supply and demand. Coinciding with the spread of distributed power generation, the use of intermittent energy sources, and increasingly efficient methods of storing energy, the Smart Grid is well equipped to maximize the effectiveness of these rapidly expanding technologies.


Together, these three features lead to significant benefits when considering the economics and stability of an electrical grid. Economically, Smart Grids offer savings to both grid operators and consumers by increasing efficiency, decreasing operating costs, reducing the amount of infrastructure necessary to deal with peak demand, utilizing already existing distributed electrical production and energy storage more extensively, and opening the door to better pricing schemes.

Through the level of analysis of and immediate response to grid conditions made possible by a Smart Grid, stability is greatly improved. The amount and frequency of updated data allows problematic areas to be identified quickly, with responses ranging from the triggering of automatic mechanisms that resolve the issue, alerting repairmen to the scene if necessary, or, in extreme cases, sectioning off severely damaged areas to prevent further damage from spreading to surrounding areas. Key among these mechanisms is Demand Response, a collection of technologies capable of adjusting consumer-side supply and demand in response to changes in the grid. Additionally, while generally operating in response to regularly occurring or unintentional issues, the same mechanisms are applicable in mitigating damage in the face of malicious attacks by an outside party.

Obstacles and Resolutions

Nevertheless, the Smart Grid has its obstacles. Primary among these is cost; though plentiful technology already exists, rolling it out over large scales represents a significant initial expense. Currently, Smart Grids, even those of limited scope and scale, have already demonstrated substantial economic benefits, with broader implementations leading to respectively broader savings.

Additionally, as the entire concept of the Smart Grid, many components communicating and interacting with each other, depends on those components actually being able to communicate and interact with each other, the implementation of any large scale Smart Grid requires sufficiently planned out standardization and the rigorous enforcement thereof.

Lastly, there are significant social concerns. As the Smart Grid allows for ever more precise manipulations in electrical supply, the potential for abuse is a point of consideration. More problematically, the Smart Grid produces and utilizes highly personalized information and, unless paired with strong measures assuring the privacy of its users, the Smart Grid’s greatest advantage becomes its greatest disadvantage. Standards and laws addressing this concern should be fleshed out prior to significant financial investments and infrastructural development, leaving customers with the best of both worlds; a technologically advanced Smart Grid and their privacy.

Looking Forward

Smart Grids represent the next step for electric grids, revolutionizing their infrastructure while still keeping and putting to use much of what has already been built. While initially expensive, Smart Grids lead to savings that, over the long term, significantly outweigh the initial investment required, going on to offer a multitude of other, non-economic benefits for everybody involved, as well as setting the stage for further improvements. Though obstacles certainly remain, standardization and policies must be agreed upon and funding must be secured, Smart Grids are a nigh-inevitable fixture of a nation’s development.

This is the first article in a series about Smart Grids, each of which can be read independently.
The second article explains the generation of electricity.
The third article goes into greater detail about Smart Grid features
The fourth article delves into Demand Response and its economic effects.
Also, a previously published and updated list of standards for Smart Grid Interoperability.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Counterfeit Electronics in Pentagon Supply Chain

A recent Associated Press article describes the national security implications of counterfeit electronic components. The topic was discussed at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee meeting. According to AP, "Sprinkling" ... [counterfeit parts] could deceive a major weapons manufacturer, possibly endanger U.S. troops.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, plans to amend the 2012 defense Authorization Act to require customs inspection of all Chinese made electronic components. Levin testified that Chinese officials told committee investigators that if their findings weren't positive, a report could damage US - Chinese relations, a claim that Levin said was exactly opposite reality. He went on to say that China's refusal to act against brazen counterfeiting is damaging to US - China relations.

The Semiconductor Industry Association estimates that counterfeiting costs $7.5 billion in lost revenue per year along with 11,000 lost US jobs.

Read more:

Watch the archived Senate Armed Services Committee hearing testimony on the Committee’s investigation into counterfeit electronic parts in the Department of Defense supply chain.

Relevant standards: