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Building tomorrow's smart grid

Posted: 13 Apr 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:smart grid  digital network  renewable energy  energy market 

Some say there's no need to hold off building the smart grids while the standards work proceeds. Start-up Silver Springs Network has sold more than 20 lakh nodes for a wireless Internet Protocol (IP) network geared for smart metering and other grid applications.

"Standards exist," asserted Raj Vaswani, co-founder and chief technology officer of Silver Springs. "If you provide the right network, things will plug into it as they come online."

Of course, "IP may not be the right choice for some aspects of the grid," cautioned Widergren of the Pacific Northwest lab. "And just because you name a technical standard does not guarantee interoperability. You need messaging and syntax over IP that might use XML or something like that."

Even Vaswani of Silver Spring is well aware that there are half a dozen or more electric metre vendors, each using its own proprietary protocols. His company also tries to network capacitor banks and grid switches, for which still other proprietary approaches are in use. "At the device level, that is an issue we all struggle with," he said.

Jump start
So the standards are crucial—and a few billion in federal stimulus funding is nothing to sneeze at. "It will provide a jump start and will accelerate development work," said Kevin Dasso, a senior director of electric strategy in the transmission and distribution group at PG&E. "In and of itself, it won't modernise the grid, but it gets the juices flowing."

Indeed, appetites are already whetted among existing and wannabe grid vendors, as well as the utilities with which they hope to partner.

Right now, "everyone is in the same mode of trying to figure out the opportunity," said Dasso, a member of PG&E's smart grid strategy group. "We do expect to develop proposals, and we want partners."

Once the Department of Energy releases detailed requests for proposals, it will be "kind of a mad dash, because we know there will be a lot of competition," Dasso said.

For now, the DOE is still trying to figure out how to spend the money. DeBlasio got an up-close look inside that part of the department during a recent trip to see his bosses.

"Everyone was scurrying around—it was amazing," he said. "I get the impression most of the money will be put into demonstrations of things that can be done, and that's good for standards because we can learn from these [demos] what's good and bad. If I were a company in this area, I would be starting to look at projects and partners, and I would want to be partnering with a utility."

Vaswani of Silver Springs was less enthusiastic: "We do not expect to see any stimulus funds directly. What we expect to happen is that the stimulus money will compress and accelerate what may have been five-year projects [so they] get done in two or three years."

Some projects that would otherwise lack enough financing to get off the ground may get the crucial push forward with the stimulus, Vaswani added.

Others are downright cynical. Maybe the standards debates will drag out. Maybe new regulations won't come or be effective. Maybe even Rs.21,379.25 crore ($4.3 billion) won't be enough to nudge the grid out of the 20th century.

"I'm afraid—and I hope I am wrong—it will be another waste of money," said Yeager.

"I told the [Obama] transition team and Congress that the federal government needs to hold the states accountable to raise the performance of the grid," Yeager added. "Just throwing money at the states is not enough."

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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