Adding Smarts To The Electrical Grid

The nation's electrical distribution system has been getting less reliable over time, according to an article by electrical engineering professor Massoud Amin. How dependable is our electrical infrastructure, and will plans for a more intelligent "smart grid" improve its reliability?

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

When you turn on a light or you power up your radio, where does the electricity come from? Well, there's a good chance it's not coming from whatever power plant that's actually closest to your electric outlet, but probably produced somewhere else and distributed over a complicated network to get to you - the famous electric grid, even though there are really many loosely interconnected grids. And the only time you really hear about the grid is - what? What? Summertime, when it fails? There's a brownout, a blackout, or now we talk about security concerns to the grid. And, of course, the grid is not getting any younger, and we're placing more demands on the grid as we need more electricity for things we never had before. You can name them: computers, air conditioners, even the coming generations of plug-in cars. They're all going to demand electricity from that grid.

But a recent article in the journal IEEE Spectrum says that our national power grid has been getting less reliable over the years, even as we're going to have to depend more on it. And next week, a major conference on smart grid technology kicks off to talk about engineering a new smart grid that perhaps may even heal itself. It can heal itself before it even breaks down.

Joining me now to talk more about it is S. Massoud Amin. He is the director of the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He holds the Honeywell/H.W. Sweatt Chair in Technological Leadership and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering there.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor S. MASSOUD AMIN (Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Minnesota): Thank you, Mr. Flatow.

FLATOW: Please, don't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...get so formal. What do you mean when you say that the system is getting less reliable? How do you put that into numbers?

Prof. AMIN: When we look at the investment in the infrastructure, there are two parts. One is the diminished shock absorbers in the system, in the high-voltage grid, as well as the innovation that goes into it. So when we look at the infrastructure, the depreciation amortization curve had crossed over investment in the infrastructure in 1995. So we are overharvesting the existing assets, the existing infrastructure. And my hat is off to the grid operators across the nation and across North America that keep the lights on while operating a system that has less and less shock absorbers.

FLATOW: If the shock absorbers, if they were on your car, you'd know about it. But if - I guess, you know about it on the grid because we're seeing more brownouts and blackouts than we used to?

Prof. AMIN: Yes, Ira. In - on average, actually, when we remove all the natural-caused ice storms, hurricanes, weather disasters from the outages, the most reliable part of our grid is - I'm very fortunate I live in Minneapolis - is the Midwest ISO. We get about 92 minutes of outages per customer, per year. The worst part, the most vulnerable part - because of aging infrastructure - is New York and PGN, that gets about 240 minutes of outages per customer, per year. And on any given day, there are about half a million of our citizens without electricity for two or more hours per day. This is in contrast to, for example, Japan, that in Japan, using the same metric of removing natural-caused disturbances on outages, extreme events, customers experience four minutes of outage per customer, per year.

FLATOW: So what are they doing better than us?

Prof. AMIN: We take our infrastructure for granted. To share with you a little bit on the investment - I'm not even talking making it smarter. I'm talking about just investment in keeping it strong and robust - a nation such as -emerging economies such as New Zealand, but established economies like England, Denmark, Spain, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, they invest between $12 million per gigawatt, per year on their high-voltage, 230 kV and higher, and this is normal, as put on the same level playing field.

To give an example, England spent 16-and-a-half-million dollars per gigawatt, per year on their high-voltage transmission. All nations that had either partially deregulated or fully deregulated their system, they spend upwards of - at least Finland spends about seven million. It's the lowest one. We are below that.

FLATOW: We're below that?

Prof. AMIN: We spend 4.6 million per - million dollars per gigawatt, per year on our super high-voltage, 230 kV and higher. In addition, they have a number of transmission-owning entities in - and those nations, all of them have one - New Zealand, England, Spain, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Finland. Denmark has two. We have over 450. And by saying that, whenever I present this, our colleagues ask, so should we nationalize the grid? I said no, that is not our way of life in America.

Instead, we should revitalize the national public/private partnership since more than 85 percent of infrastructure is privately owned. We need to build incentives for the different stakeholders to upgrade the system, to look at it as a system, as almost - at least major interconnections. And hopefully, as they plan for the rest of this century, as a continental scale system, to bring again - to be able to bring where(ph) energy sources are and use the most efficient carrier of energy, which is electrons, to bring those resources to where the demand for electricity, demand for energies.

FLATOW: Are you saying we don't need a smart grid then or...

Prof. AMIN: No. Smart grid would make - is an overlay. So allow me to briefly say what smart grid is. Smart grid is the overlay, is the sensor network, communication overlay and control devices on top of that system. So there is a part - would you please - to use an analogy. Think about skeleton.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. AMIN: Think about the musculature. And think about the nervous system.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. AMIN: Smart grid is the enhancement to the sensors, communication, controls and devices and systems that operate as an overlay in parallel on top of this hardwired system to enhance reliability, minimize cost, reduce cost, improve security and resilience, robustness of the system.

FLATOW: It's almost like electronic or an autopilot, I imagine, on airplane. You're not changing the wings and things, but you're putting a smarter way to control the flight, because, as you say, those folks on the levers just can't keep up anymore, pushing those levers in those power plants and switching stations around the country.

Prof. AMIN: I (unintelligible) actually, the genesis of this, when I had the privilege leading R&D, beginning about 13 years ago at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, as the head of mathematics and information sciences there, that's what I did. I used what I have learned, working for my McDonnell Douglas, Boeing Phantom Work, and NASA Ames, on reconfigurable, damage adaptive flight control systems. And the perfect example is an F-15 pilot that an Israeli pilot, Captain Zivi, had landed in 1983 with a missing wing. So this is enhanced avionics that are situational awareness, fastest situational awareness, to enable better control, better...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. AMIN: ...security and resilience to unforeseen events.

FLATOW: Do we need to engineer anything new or do - you know, what kind of engineering applications are required? Or do we have what we need and it's just not been put into play?

Prof. AMIN: There are both, a lot of it. Actually, many colleagues or many listeners probably are familiar with the smart meter. They think if I have a smart meter, I have a smart grid. But if you step a little bit out, get a bird's eye view, you're actually talking about end to end, from fuel source to the end use, from fuel source to the - to your device at home, at work. That is the system.

Smart meter is just one node, measurement node, on the customer citizens interface to the utility. So many of the communication, whether the backbone for the communication is fiber optic or microwave or local even there is Wi-Fi, WiMAX security built-in - there has to be, security...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. AMIN: ...has to be a critical part of this so that it enhances security. It should be built-in as a design criteria, not sprinkled on as a condiment or glued on as a afterthought.

FLATOW: But how do you get this done? I mean, it - this is going to cost a lot of money. And we hear about the budgetary problems we're having here.

Prof. AMIN: Its bill(ph) - I will share with you the numbers. Currently, our outages in the United States costs our economy anywhere, depending on the year, anywhere from $80 billion a year to over $180 billion a year, outages, power quality disruptions. The more digital devices we are using, the more demand you're going to need for perfect power.

So what's the cost of doing the smart grid? First, the cost of strengthening the backbone of the grid would costs us - and Department of Energy (unintelligible) have done the studies as part of transmission study - would costs us about $82 billion to make it stronger, if you will...

FLATOW: That's one year's worth of waste...

Prof. AMIN: Exactly.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. AMIN: And this could be spread over 10 years. But it needs that kind of commitment, the 10-year commitment, eight billion a year, to retrofit and expand this among different stakeholders. So that's stronger. Smarter, to make the overlay. Put the overlay of sensors, communication and control devices would cost us between 165 billion to $170 billion over 10 to 20 years, depending on what time horizon we put in.

And the benefits of that, it would reduce outages by $49 billion a year. It would increase efficiency of the grid by over 4.5 percent as according to Pacific Northeast National Labs. That would translate into $29.2 billion a year in efficiency - improved efficiency. In addition, it would reduce emissions 12 to 18 percent.

FLATOW: Wow. So who do you have to convince...

Prof. AMIN: You know, it is a clarity using science, using evidence, using engineering, to assess these and put all - everything on the canvas, everything, what works, what doesn't work.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So it's up to someone to take an objective, critical look at this and say, you know, this makes sense. We should - it's worth spending the money on, is what you're saying.

Prof. AMIN: That's precisely what I've had the privilege of doing for the last 14 years in this area. And the conclusions that I shared with you is a widespread assessment from every department of energy, national labs, even (unintelligible) group that looked at the entire end-to-end system modernization, complete revamp of the entire system. The current system in America, if you don't think of it as North American, then in reality it is North American. The U.S. portion is valued, the whole infrastructure, at about $1 trillion. And this $1 trillion system underpins our $14 trillion economy.

FLATOW: All right. Well and you're going to be having a conference. The IEEE is having a conference out next week and we wish you good luck.

Prof. AMIN: Thank you very much and welcome your participation and your leadership in this area.

FLATOW: Thanks for joining us. Have a good weekend.

Prof. AMIN: Thank you.

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