Electric Power Reliability Summit

Extending Reliability Through Leadership

4 Challenges to the Progress of the Smart Grid

When it comes to the Smart Grid, collaboration, cooperation, and a focus on safety will drive the adoption of new technology.

When I look at the Smart Grid from a reliability perspective, there are four major things that stand out to me in terms of challenges to progress. But I’ll be optimistic here, because I also think that many of these challenges can be turned into opportunities if we choose to work together.

It is a very complex and dynamic world.
No one group, company, or organization has the single answer to how to keep the Smart Grid reliable. The Smart Grid is hugely complex, integrating new technologies, AI, Machine Learning, DER systems, demand response, and Advanced Metering Infrastructure. Then there’s integration of renewable energy production and the asset management involved with that; there’s increasing research into battery technology; and, of course, there’s the absolute necessity of cyber security to protect the entire grid. Add into that the fact that there are three distinct grids—West, East, and Texas—and you have a very complex process.

People, not technology, will slow down development.
Complexity demands collaboration, and collaboration demands the sharing of knowledge. But the nature of competition makes collaboration very difficult, if not impossible. It’s not just about getting all this technology to work together. It’s about motivating everyone to work together. The human and financial aspects of the smart grid might just be the most challenging roadblock on the path to progress.

Technology seems to be driving the solution, not reliability leadership.
A lot of the technology in development is coming from vendors who want to get a leg up on competition. Which is great, to a point. Necessity might be the mother of invention, but competition for dollars sure does a good job of getting the creative juices flowing too. But these creative technologies, which have the potential to add tremendous value to the Smart Grid, get caught up in the vacuum of “proprietarization.” I made that word up, by the way—but you can use it if you like. After all, we’re sharing here.

IOUs, Muni’s, Co-ops and IPP’s are often faced with tough decisions when it comes to adopting new technologies. Here’s how the conversation goes:

“Buy my solution. It’s the best out there.”

“Fantastic! Sounds great! Does your solution connect with all the other solutions already part of our system?”

“Of course not! This is capitalism, not cooperation. Our company needs to capture as much market share as possible and lock our customers in for the long-haul so we can give a great return our shareholders. Why would we connect with others?”

You get the point. Of course, all this new R&D requires dollars upfront and a realistic opportunity for a good ROI, but what does this tendency for proprietarization mean for reliability? I think it decreases it. We should be focusing on the reliability of a system, not just reliability of an asset or an asset class.

Reliability and safety are two sides of the same coin.
A reliable smart grid is a safe smart grid. Consider a coin. It has two sides. One side is reliability. The other is safety. This isn’t a new concept, by the way. An IEEE paper from 1975 stated this very same concept. 1975! The idea that safety and reliability should be aligned with safety has been around since Pink Floyd were telling all us crazy diamonds to shine on. But I believe we have taken the wrong approach, aligning reliability with maintenance instead of safety since 1975. It’s time to make a change and align safety and reliability. 

At the recent SMRP Annual Conference, we announced an alliance formed between SMRP and OSHA. I remember sitting with OSHA in Washington, DC with the SMRP Government Relations staff and Dr. Nancy Frost, wondering if this would indeed be an alliance for change, or whether it would be just another PR event. I hope and believe that it will be an alliance for change, and that SMRP can add perspective and value to OSHA when it comes to electrical system safety, and that OSHA can speak into the world of reliability as it relates to safety. In the midst of all this progress, I think this is an incredibly important step in the right direction, and one that has needed to catch up for the past 43-ish years.

I’d love to hear from you, especially with examples of great collaboration. Tell me your Smart Grid reliability ideas worth sharing and share some examples of the alignment of reliability and safety to really get us thinking.

But please, don’t send me any proprietary solutions. “Proprietarization” is polarizing. Let’s instead work together to change things.

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