Tackling the U.S. smart grid challenge in a world of change


By Keith Gossage

Our energy networks are changing – and, more importantly, will have to change – as we move to a low carbon economy. “Smart” is clearly one of the ways forward and nothing is different here in the northeastern United States.

The US electricity industry faces significant change over the coming years. We all have to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on foreign oil.

We are going to see a shift from electricity generated and controlled centrally, to one where energy is more dispersed and integrated locally, taking advantage of renewable energy sources. Environmental concerns and rising prices will require us to provide timely energy usage and pricing information, more tailored energy options and greater individual customer control. And that’s where smart grids come into the picture.

They have clear support from President Obama – as signalled in the stimulus package – where some US$4 billion was made available to fund the initial stages of what is seen as the beginnings of large scale deployment of intelligent energy networks.

New technology is bringing exciting changes as we look to introduce more automation, smart meters, new pricing, billing options and web-based information. This will be the first step in the power network equivalent of moving from analogue to digital technology. Customers could use their iPhones to manage their electricity usage, and network operators using “plugged-in” hybrid vehicles overnight to back up the power grid.

Significant work has already begun in a number of states across the country that have smart grid pilots underway or being planned – but there will be hurdles to cross.

The real challenge facing those of us rolling out comprehensive smart grid pilots is understanding how they will actually work. A variety of smart meters have existed for many years – but how will a holistic, end-to-end smart grid really work? How will it change customer behaviour for the best? And how and which new technologies will really work? At National Grid, we have applied for $200m of smart grid stimulus funding for the first phase of our pilots, which will help show us those changes in behaviour up close.

We need to work closely with our state and federal regulators, as well as businesses such as car manufacturers, home appliance producers and other vendors. We’re starting a journey that will create intelligent networks for generations to come, so we have to get it right.

In the northeastern US, we are lucky to be working with progressive state regulators who understand the importance of a low carbon economy, and the role smart grids can play in that. We have lots of questions, and running pilots that will evaluate the new grids in action and lead to a phased rollout will help us get those answers.

And finally, creating holistic pilot programmes so we can understand how they work is essential. The theory and technology exist, but without real experience of this new technology, it will be even more challenging to transition to a nationwide smart grid network. The challenges we face in the northeast will inevitably be different from those faced by utilities and customers in the southwest. For example, we may have a lot less distributed solar generation, but more wind – so who knows how this will affect the new intelligent grids and the customers who use them.

At National Grid, we currently have a number of proposed pilots across the footprint in which we operate. The vision for these pilots is to use smart grid technology to optimise clean energy resources, further improve network performance and provide customers the information to make informed decisions about their energy use. And this is vital – smart grid development has to be focused on the customer.

New technology can provide our customers with choice over how the electricity they use is generated and control over how and when they use energy in their homes and businesses. We are looking to involve over 200,000 customers in our pilots across upstate New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and give them this increased level of control.

The new service platform will provide and act as a catalyst for current clean technologies (e.g., energy efficiency, demand response) and the emerging next generation of clean technologies (e.g., photovoltaics, energy storage, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) that we believe are essential to meet societal and customers’ future needs. Pilot programmes will give us the understanding we need to better plan a transition.

The requirement for more intelligent networks is not in doubt – but how they actually work and how customers will use the additional capabilities they will bring needs to be tested properly and will lead to a phased rollout.

Smart grids will provide our energy platform for generations to come, helping us reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and enhancing the reliability of our aging infrastructure. We have to embrace the new technology now as we plan for the future, and build a clean network that our children and grandchildren can rely on.