Nl Smart Grid Experts Discuss Electric Utility Plans and Challenges

Sept. 2, 2011
Record high temperatures and months of drought in Texas have driven peak demand for electricity, setting the stage for NI Week’s Industry Experts Panel.

With temperatures of 106 degrees, not only did the first week of August break records for Austin, TX, home of automation and instrumentation vendor National Instruments, but local demand for electricity hit a new high of 69 gigawatts—5 percent higher than the old record set in 2010—and schools aren’t even back in session yet. It was the perfect backdrop for the NI Week 2011 conference, its Energy Technology Summit on designing the smart grid, an its Industry Experts Panel discussion of smart grid issues and technology.

“Everyone who has signed up to shed load is off the grid, and the system is stressed,” said Jim Greer, senior vice president of Oncor (, which handles at least a third of electricity delivery in the Austin area. Oncor Electric Delivery is Texas’s largest regulated electric delivery business and the sixth largest in the U.S., according to Wikipedia.

Greer said another problem—drought—has depleted cooling ponds and the system is not getting a chance to cool down. It’s “the perfect storm,” he added.

Owen Golden, NI vice president of the Global Energy Segment, moderated the panel discussion. He called energy and the smart grid “one of the most complex challenges we face today” and encouraged major utility companies to learn how to work with startups who can innovate.

Greer admitted that most utilities are more than 100 years old and tend to work with giants like GE or ABB who can take a “40-year view” of a solution. But he talked about the possibility of three million homes and businesses wired with “smart meters” from transmission through distribution. “What if, during peak demand, we could turn off pool pumps or bump everyone’s thermostat up a few degrees?” he said.

Need for operator tools

The key to making the U.S. electrical grid smarter, according to the panel, is to give tools to operators for real-time viewing of the grid, not only at transmission, but through to distribution.

“One of the key reasons for the huge Northeast black out of 2003 is no one saw the same thing the same way,” according to Alison Silverstein, consultant for the North American SynchroPhasor Initiative ( “[They] made decisions that did not help the problem, but contributed to it. Even to the point of calling different sections of the grid by different names.”

Silverstein mentioned that federal regulations make it hard for utilities to be nimble, but added that some of the most innovative work she sees in energy is coming from smaller companies. Bill Kramer from the National Renewable Energy Lab (, added that the Department of Energy is funding smaller companies, but that these startups must exhibit reliability, passing UL tests and meeting IEEE1147 standards.

Impact of electric cars

Electric car charging will strain some grids, the panel agreed, and power companies have to prepare for it just like “adding a new Starbuck’s to a neighborhood.” Incentives for charging vehicles at night will be key, they agreed.

Carlos Coe from Xtreme Power ( talked about a program with Ford and Detroit Edison in which one large battery attached to a solar array will be used to “fast charge” a group of cars, much like a filling station does: The filling station doesn’t generate gas, it just stores and pumps it. Xtreme Power, based in Kyle, Texas, designs, manufactures and operates integrated energy storage and power management systems called Dynamic Power Resources that can simultaneously perform many services needed by the energy market including “the ability to time-shift power.”

Nuclear power

Nuclear power accounts for 20 percent of the energy in the U.S. and 16 percent around the world. Greer believes the fallout from tsunami and the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan set U.S. acceptance of nuclear energy back 20 years.

Silverstein said she doesn’t think generating nuclear power is the issue, but rather the issue is the storage of spent fuel rods. “That’s what the Japan crisis showed us,” she said.

Kramer was hit personally hard by the crisis and found himself wondering about due diligence and back-up scenarios. He said failure modes and mechanisms are the responsibility of the nuclear plant design engineers who have to look beyond the foreseeable and ask “what if?”

One audience member asked a question regarding smart sensors on a network, and could they open up the system to cyber attacks. Oncor’s Greer said, “Cyber security is fundamental in everything we do.”  Silverstein added that “redundancy and failsafe modes must be built in layers of defense to react to any problem.”

In the future, according to the panelists, one could envision a truly smart system that will recognize illegal commands and will not act upon them. For today, however, there are many other kinds of “smart” being added to the grid.

Jim Chrzan, [email protected] is publisher of Automation World.

For more on smart grid technologies, visit

More on the North American SychroPhasor Initiative

One of the people on NI Week’s Industry Experts Panel was Alison Silverstein, a consultant for the North American SynchroPhasor Initiative ( NASPI’s mission is to improve power system reliability and visibility through wide area measurement and control.

Synchrophasors are precise grid measurements available from monitors called phasor measurement units (PMUs). PMU measurements are taken at high speed—typically 30 observations per second, compared to once every 4 seconds using conventional technology. Each measurement is time-stamped according to a common time reference, allowing different utilities to be time-aligned (or “synchronized”) and combined together providing a precise and comprehensive view of the entire interconnection.

Silverstein said synchrophasors enable a better indication of grid stress, and can be used to trigger corrective actions to maintain reliability.

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