Is the Smart Grid Real?

Author: Marco C. Janssen, UTInnovation, Netherlands

I ask myself this question because recently I keep reading articles discussing whether the Smart Grid will be a success or a failure. I think this is a pointless question as the Smart Grid as a concept is already a great success.

Never since the invention of electricity has the interest in the power industry been this big. One can always argue about the reason for this interest but in itself, it is already a reason for celebration as the hype we have created is attracting the attention of a lot of people that as a result may choose a career in our industry.  This would be fantastic.  It would help us to resolve one of the issues we are struggling with in our industry, because we would get more high quality engineers involved.
In previous columns I have spent quite a few words on this topic, so I will leave it at this for now, but I do want to elaborate a bit more on the related question whether the Smart Grid is real.

I just attended a large conference and just like in recent years the associated exhibition had a large contingent of manufacturers promoting their Smart Grid related solutions.

In recent years a lot of the products and services shown were mere repackaged products or “old wine in new bags” as we say in The Netherlands and to a very large extend their so-called “smart” solutions focused around Smart Metering...

This year however it is clearly different, because not only a lot of new products were on display, but the range of the solutions offered by the different manufacturers and service providers has significantly grown. So, is the Smart Grid real?

I think it is!

We have come a long way and based on the many trials and pilots  that have been conducted in recent years, and that are still being conducted in ever growing numbers and size, we are now seeing a steadily growing stream of real solutions that allow us to implement a real Smart(er) Grid.

When I started my career I had a dream of multi-vendor Substation Automation Systems based on universal open platforms and standard protocols.  It took us 14 years to realize that dream through the development of IEC 61850, and although we are still not completely where we should be in my opinion as the tools need to mature and we still lack real open platforms, we have made a significant progress.

Since 2001 I am having an additional dream. In this second dream of mine, the power utility has real time access to any kind of data related to its business at any time, and from any location. I described this in a paper I presented for the Gridwise Architecture Council Interop Forum in 2007 as a “Utility Search Engine for Remote Information for Operations and Management," and I compared it to the way today’s internet search engines work. When I wrote the paper the realization of my dream seemed far away but today I believe we are very close to turning this dream into reality.

And the dreaming does not stop as I as a user of electricity see a whole realm of new opportunities on the horizon.  For example I would like to:

  • Generate my own power using renewable generation, ranging from solar panels, wind turbines, fuel cells to a new electric vehicle
  • Know in real time what my energy usage is,  and whether I can save money by investing in new home appliances
  • Know how my energy profile relates to that of similar people in my neighborhood, region and country
  • Know not only my energy costs in real time, but also compared to the costs, the same time last month and last year
  • Know my impact on the carbon footprint, or in other words how "green" I am

and last but, not least

  • Have control! I want to be able to decide when and how to use energy and I want access to the information related to all of these items from anywhere in the world as I travel a lot...

Sounds like Star Trek?  Well, reality is that a lot of the pieces of the puzzle exist today. In my opinion we should focus more on making them fit our needs, and in many cases combine what is there in one -  and one is very often more than two.

Now all of this, of course, has to be:   

  • Extremely simple to implement
  • Very cost effective, and at the same time
  • Extremely easy to use

And this, I think, is going to be the biggest challenge of them all.

We engineers are pretty good in inventing solutions, but honestly,  I think we are pretty bad in thinking like real customers that know almost nothing about electricity and simply use it.  I believe we need to look at how others have done it, and fortunately there are plenty of examples of fantastic consumer products that have changed the way we think and behave. Just to name a few of them: the iPad, the Blackberry, Email, Google, YouTube...

We need to come up with solutions that are as mind changing as the examples mentioned, and to convince the users of energy to start making the big change by consciously starting to use energy in a different way. This will lead to real reductions in their daily use and will make the new generation of consumers aware of their impact on their own bill, and on the environment as well.

This requires a different approach than just the technical one,  and will involve a lot of education, marketing and of course real life demonstrations as it is not an easy task to change our general behavior consistently. Of course all of this has to be realized under the premise that we, the engineers, assure that it all works the way it is supposed to work!


Marco C. Janssen graduated the Polytechnic in Arnhem, The Netherlands.  He developed further his professional skills through programs and training courses. Marco  is President and Chief Commercial Officer of UTInnovation LLC, a company providing consulting & training services in the areas of protection, control, substation automation and data acquisition,  and support on the new international standard IEC 61850, advanced metering and power quality.  He is a member of WG 10, 17, 18, & 19 of IEC TC57, the IEEE-PES and UCA International Users group.

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