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Kirt's Cogitations™ #251 - The New [Smart] Colossus

These original Kirt's Cogitations™ may be reproduced (no more than 5, please) provided proper credit is given to me, Kirt Blattenberger.

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   Cog·i·ta·tion [koj-i-tey'-shun] – noun: Concerted thought or
                                        reflection; meditation; contemplation.
   Kirt [kert] – proper noun: RF Cafe webmaster.


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The New [Smart] Colossus


"It is a colossal task. But it is a task that must be done." So declares the title page of the Department of Energy's propaganda publication, The Smart Grid: An Introduction.

Ask around what peoples' opinions are the of the Smart Grid, and you will find they run the gamut from clueless, to passionate support, to paranoid resistance. As with so many of the advancements and implementations of leading edge technology, my otherwise great enthusiasm for the Smart Grid is tempered by the extremists who want to wag their hypocritical fingers in my face and tell me that if I do not embrace their cause, then that makes me a bad person. Most of the hyperventilating zealots are utterly ignorant of the science behind the things they bloviate over, typically receiving their version of the "truth" from some equally ignorant soul (often a Hollyweird celeb or network newscaster).

For many years, the existing electrical distribution infrastructure (the "Grid") in the U.S. has been operating on the brink of failure. Demand for electric power has increased significantly in the past two decades as both consumer and commercial/industrial electronics have permeated all aspects of life. Computers dominate the landscape, large screen televisions (which actually consume more power than their CRT predecessors) can be found in multiple rooms of most homes, microprocessors control our coffee makers, refrigerators, and clothes washers. People of all ages carry at least one battery-powered mobile device, which has a charger sitting at home (probably, unfortunately, left plugged in all the time). Electronic toys and tools that run on rechargeable batteries fill the shelves. Individually, each item might not consume a lot of power, but collectively the demand is enormous.

Add to that the increasing average square footage of houses along with a commensurate requirement for more heating and air conditioning, and the national population growth that increases the overall electricity needs, and it is no surprise that since 1982, growth in peak demand for electricity has exceeded transmission growth by nearly 25% every year. Gee, it is a good thing our manufacturing base has dropped so precipitously in the same period, or we would be in real trouble with all those motors, heating and cooling, and process equipment needs that would have to be supplied (just a bit of gallows humor, as the Prez might say).

As of 2008, America's electric grid consisted of more than 9,200 electric generating units with more than 1,000,000 megawatts of generating capacity, connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines. The entire system is tied together through a complex mesh of generation, transformers, transmission lines, switching stations, monitoring equipment, and incredibly complex control centers. Software running the whole show uses complex supervisory, predictive, reactive, and control algorithms that rival space program applications. Ph.D. theses are earned in all realms of creating, improving, maintaining, and operating this enormous Grid. The DoE claims that even with all the opportunities for malfunctions, today’s electricity system is 99.97% reliable. That reliability number sounds good, but it amounts to an average of 2.5 hours per year (≈1 second per hour) of power outages for you.

RF Cafe: Northeast Blackout 2003 MapThere have been five massive blackouts over the past 40 years, three of which have occurred in the past nine years. The last major blackout occurred in August of 2003 and was triggered by overgrown tree branches. A deficiency in communications software that coordinated grid connections and fault isolation failed to react properly, causing a cascade of shut-downs across much of the Northeast and upper Midwest. The Department of Energy's Smart Grid is supposed to fix the problem.

A lot of the hysteria over the Smart Grid is focused on how the government will be able to use smart electric (and gas and water) meters, along with appropriately equipped appliances (ovens, air conditioners, etc.) to override personal settings and impose a bureaucratic mandate on usage. If, as is common in southern California during scorching summer days, the demand for electricity exceeds the  system's ability to service everyone who wants power, then, Big Brother can selectively crank back your thermostat setting to limit air conditioners to a balmy 76 degrees rather than the 70 degrees where you have it set. If things get really tight, maybe it will be necessary to shut down the clothes dryers of every house in LA from 2:00 PM through 7:00 PM. You will not have any control over it. That is the fear, anyway.

Trust us, says the government, that is not a planned feature of the Smart Grid. After all, it even says as much in that The Smart Grid: An Introduction publication mentioned earlier. To wit on page 14, "People are often confused by the terms Smart Grid and smart meters. Are they not the same thing? Not exactly."

It's the "not exactly" part that gives me pause. That means in some inexact way, yeah, maybe - just maybe - it could possibly be the same thing.

RF Cafe: Smart Electric MeterSmart meters have been around a long time. Way back in the early 1990s, I worked for a company that developed the first vehicle-mounted remote meter reading system. Some pretty ingenuous people designed and implemented the system a few years before I arrived. My job was to try to help improve it a bit. This system used a very low power transmitter and superregenerative receiver (Tx and Rx shared a single transistor amplifier) mounted on electric, gas, and water meters to communicate with a computer-controlled transponder mounted in a big black box in a van. The van, intended for dense urban environments, could be driven at up to 40 mph at a distance of up to 1,000 feet from the meters and record 99% of the readings. Missed reading were still done manually, but the labor expenses for utility companies were reduced significantly. The meters, depending on their design, were capable of reporting not just consumption data, but other information like attempts at tampering, service interruption, etc. In the works when I left were much more complex meters that would monitor 3-phase services and include power factor information.

Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) for the electric grid has been around for decades. It is responsible for monitoring, reporting, and controlling conditions on the grid. Ranging from the smallest substations to the monster switching station yards, this is the primary system that keeps electricity flowing (to use the vernacular) to your house and place of business. You might be shocked (no pun intended) to learn how antiquated a large portion of the equipment is. Having worked for an electric utility for a short whole, I was introduced to a some of the installations. I kid you not that, at least at the time, at one of the hydro power generators on the Potomac River actually had a belt connecting the impeller to the generator gear box (although I never actually saw it).

RF Cafe: SCADA system at substationAt the time the engineering office where I worked was retrofitting smaller substations with SCADA equipment that communicated back to the main office via a 4,800 Baud telephone modem. Much of the long distance communications between switching stations and the central control stations was accomplished via power line carrier (PLC). I sat in on a 2-day class for it - pretty cool considering its age. Much of that system was being replaced with microwave communications. There might not be much PLC used any more, if for no other reason than it would present a very vulnerable security breach point. By the way, power line carrier is the method that would be used by power companies to control your household appliances if the Dark Side of the Force ever gains control as feared.

So, the reality is that a couple major issues are at hand. One is that infrastructure is enormously expensive to build, maintain, and update. Trying to implement any new physical construction, be it generation plants, transmission lines, or switching stations, means years of legal battles, Public Utility Commission (PUC) hearings, citizen protests, and political processes; the familiar NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome kicks in on a huge scale. Another is that the existing system is vulnerable to equipment failure, terrorist attack, and an inability to keep up with demand; that causes untold loss in productivity, revenue, and even loss of life (due to lack of heat or air conditioning). Ultimately, much needed improvement is either abandoned or band-aided yet again.

Past efforts at improving the existing system have paid out great rewards. Methods of load sharing and load shedding, power factor correction, voluntary off-peak consumption, updating of household and commercial equipment to more efficient models, training people to turn off lights (yes, even to use CFL bulbs) and computers when not in use, and a host of other concepts have managed to extend the capability of our electric grid well beyond its original design. Compliance has been mostly voluntary through financial incentives. Rotating blackouts have been needed in extreme cases. It could get a lot worse.

It has been said that America's success has been enabled through our energy, communications, and transportation infrastructure. To cripple any of them cripples the country's ability to progress and compete in a global market. Of course, if you are reading this and are not an American, you can apply the same arguments to your own country. Accordingly, I am a proponent of the current plans to repair and improve long-neglected utilities, roads and bridges, and other essential systems. No, I do not trust the government to do or even oversee the job; fortunately, most of the actual work will be carried out by private contractors. The Smart Grid, if implemented as advertised, will add a significant degree of robustness and capacity to the power distribution system (including protection against terrorist attacks). It will take diligence on the part of the people to assure that civil rights are not abused in the process. As the saying goes, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

This is indeed the new colossus. Not one of the type written about by Emma Lazarus, this is a looming distributed behemoth that threatens the long-term health of our society if not addressed in a serious manner. Ignore it for too long, and those tempest-tossed, huddled masses yearning to be free might not be able to see the (electric) lamp that Lady Liberty lifts beside the golden door.
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