Race to the Smart Grid

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By Masha Zager

Tomorrow's electric power system will rely on the "smart grid"— infrastructure that is monitored and managed by means of continual, two-way communication between users and utilities. Automated meter reading is probably the best-known application of the smart grid, but that's only the beginning. With the right infrastructure in place, electric utilities can communicate not only with meters but also with end-user appliances, such as hot-water heaters and their own generating and distribution equipment. In many rural areas, telcos will play an important role in making the smart grid a reality.

Utilities and regulators are counting on the smart grid to enable energy conservation, shift demand from peak to nonpeak periods, integrate distributed energy sources (small-scale solar, wind and hydro generators) and energy storage facilities, accommodate the proliferation of electric cars, reduce waste and theft of power, and raise system uptime and reliability, among other goals. State regulators are still wrestling with the question of how to pay for smart-grid investments. For example, in June 2010, the Maryland Public Service Commission shocked the industry by denying Baltimore Gas & Electric's proposal to shift the cost of smart meters to customers. But in general, regulators support the initiative.


Government Support

The federal government is a strong proponent: The Department of Energy is awarding close to $4 billion for smart-grid investment projects through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and has also initiated several smart-grid research and planning efforts. One research grant to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association will help evaluate new smart-grid technologies and security mechanisms. Similarly, the FCC, in its national broadband plan, emphasized the need to integrate broadband into the smart grid.

To date, most utilities have built their own communications infrastructure for smart-grid projects. Early smart-metering systems, which needed little communications capacity, used 900 MHz wireless mesh networks with proprietary protocols. As utilities envisioned more ambitious projects that would exchange and analyze large amounts of end-user data in real time, they began to look at higher-capacity networks, with fiber built out close to, or all the way to, the endpoints.

Several municipal power utilities, particularly Tennessee Valley Authority distributors (the TVA is another Graphicchampion of smart grids), have begun deploying fiber to the home (FTTH) to connect meters directly to fiber. In some places, fiber-connected meters also serve as wireless collection points for nearby unwired meters. Bristol Tennessee Essential Services and Pulaski Electric System were among the first municipal power operators to install these systems. Using broadband stimulus funding, several electric cooperatives followed suit, such as Ralls County Electric Cooperative and Lumbee River Electric Membership Corp.