Trying to Energize the Push for a Smart Grid

For years, electrical experts have been calling for a "smart grid" that could better sense and adapt to changing conditions, from electrical outages to shifts in power consumption. Massoud Amin, referred to by some as the "father of the smart grid," talks about how and why the country should improve its aging electrical infrastructure.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

With the record summer heat this year there have come massive power consumption. They set the record for power consumption in New York from that week we had last week. And, of course, with that comes - you have record storms, tornadoes and hurricanes. Can another power blackout be just one downed power line away, cascading through our aged and creaky electrical grid?

We've been hearing over the years the need to create a smart grid, one that can better adapt to changing conditions in real time. And joining me now is a man who's been calling by some - who's been called by some the father of the smart grid, a constant crusader for the creation of that grid. He has a commentary in this week's journal Nature. Guess what he's talking about? He's talking about the design of a self-healing grid.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Massoud Amin is professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university - and a distinguished teaching professor at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MASSOUD AMIN: Thank you very much, Ira. My pleasure.

FLATOW: You're getting to sound like a broken record.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Why don't we have a smart grid yet?

AMIN: It's a massive undertaking in the sense that, as opposed to the Internet, there are many stakeholders. You don't have a clean slate to design from the bottom-up, and you have to retrofit legacy systems with many owners, operators, stakeholders subject to a variety of regulations. It's the most fundamental infrastructure of our society, but it has grown over 125 years to have a very complex regulatory, ownership and technological mix.

FLATOW: You know what that all boils down to in English, right? One word: money.

AMIN: Absolutely. And leadership. I would say money and leadership.

FLATOW: Yeah. And we don't have - we're in great shortage of both at this period.

AMIN: Money is available. Actually, many utilities have the funds. It's the return on investment is the cloud of uncertainty that prevents them from investing it, because at the current point, there is a divide between federal government jurisdiction, which has jurisdiction over the high-voltage, all-power transmission, which is 100,000 volts and higher, 100 kV to 800 kV.

And it's - and then the electrons are brought to our neighborhoods, to our factories, and so on. It's on the lower voltage on the distribution system. Jurisdiction over that is mostly under local public utility commissioners that PUCs are very hesitant to approve anything that would increase the rates even 5 percent. Because of that, innovation is killed, usually at the local level. And because many utilities operate in multiple state - states, there is no incentive to do regional planning or to do a coordinated planning. Electrons don't travel just from point A to point B in a city. They really are regional.

Even I would argue that over time, it's going to be a national grid, a continental-scale grid that is connected by direct current lines in order to bring renewables, and up to 40 percent of electricity can come from wind if we build that stronger backbone.

FLATOW: Let's talk about - but you did mention in your article in Nature an incentive that has never been really around before that could be a game-changer, in my view. And that is people now are all connected with their smartphones, their Internets. Everything now, when that power goes out, there's chaos. It is mental, psychological - I don't have my Internet. Could that not be a driving force to get something to happen now?

AMIN: Absolutely. The digital sector, all the wonderful electronic devices - iPhones, iPads, smartphones, Androids, computers, mobile computing - they depend on, depends on electricity, not only reliable electricity, but high-quality, free of harmonics, so that it doesn't cause damage to our high electronic components.

And the biggest growth in the past 10 years - it has been a slow decade, but load has grown about just under a percent - to, what, .9 percent a year. And the majority of it are server farms and data centers that are doubling every five years in demand.

And by 2030, 20 percent of total demand in the United States will be because of data centers and digital, basically, server farms that are - even when we pick our telephone or we tweet, each tweet takes .025 watt hours, and then you add 1.7 billion tweets per week, and you factor not just our tweet, but the communication network that needs from our device to take it to the server farms, and from there, transfer it to the other recipients and archive it, store it, video streaming, digitization of records, medical records.

All of those take massive amounts of electricity. So this is the fastest-growing sector, and we are becoming more and more dependent on the need for high-quality, reliable electrons.

FLATOW: You said that Twitter - Twitter service itself adds 2,500 megawatt hours of demand. That's equivalent to 825,000 homes.

AMIN: Precisely.

FLATOW: Wow.

AMIN: You know, it's the whole end-to-end system. I mean, initially shocking, but one of the challenges has been - and it gets also into incentive and split jurisdiction. Really, electricity, unlike any other infrastructure, needs to be assessed, whether from expansion planning or whether from security, from end to end, from fuel source through generators, through transmission, high-voltage transmission, through distribution, to end use, to the plug, in the wall for our lighting, refrigeration, and with advent of distributed generation and micro-grids to locally self-supporting, mostly, grids. There's a need to do this end-to-end assessment. But now, it is really fragmented.

FLATOW: Yeah.

AMIN: And that systematic assessment, end-to-end, isn't there. And the incentives aren't there to do that. So when we look at tweets from my device to your device, the whole system - especially the communication and the server farms - add exactly 2,500 megawatts of load - megawatt hours of load, which is really five large generators. When you look at all the digital things that we are using, it's huge.

And I'm in Twitter myself, and I use it regularly, and I'm grateful for it. However, the infrastructure we have, which is a marvel of engineering for the 20th century - according to National Academy of Engineering, with which I concur - is the most amazing, the most essential achievement of engineering in the 20th century. However, how do we upgrade it to be the infrastructure for the 21st century?

We used to be number one or two back in the '80s in the quality of our power system. World Economic Forum last year ranked us in the 30s. Among all of the countries in the world, we come in 30th, because we have taken a lot for granted. And beginning in the '80s, we started harvesting more and more out of the existing assets without putting more into it.

FLATOW: Wow. So let's talk about a bit what kinds of parts - you talked about the creation of a self-healing system. So if something goes down, it can heal itself.

AMIN: That's right.

FLATOW: How would you build that?

AMIN: That's an area that I have had the privilege of working on since January of 1998, and funded the largest program in the nation when I was at the Electric Power Research Institute, exactly in that area. The way it works, it really has three functionalities, what the self-healing grid does. And we have tested it in simulation, as well as in real life.

It is the three functionalities. So it has real-time, end-to-end monitoring from fuel source through the chain that I mentioned that measures the system 20 times a second to 50 times a second for high-voltage transmissions that are called synchrophasors, phasor measurement unit, satellite-based measurements that are - that thanks to stimulus plan, we're going to have a thousand of them, which is up from around 100 to 200 two years ago to get better situation awareness.

So number one, real-time monitoring and reaction to allow the system to constantly optimize and tune itself and be able to move itself to an optimal stage. So they become more efficient, become more reliable, become more resilient. Second functionality...

FLATOW: Hang on, Massoud. I've got to remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

AMIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Pay the bills. Yes, go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

AMIN: Thank you. Second functionality, Ira, is anticipation. Almost like a chess player, you don't move one game at - one move at a time, several moves. Anticipation enables the system to look for - to automatically look for problem areas that could be precursors to larger disturbances.

FLATOW: Yeah.

AMIN: Third, final capability is rapid isolation. That allows the system, the self-healing powers - and it's not just a self-healing grid. It's self-healing infrastructure. Similarly, we can apply that to other infrastructures and reconfigure them dynamically with the objectives of increased security, reliability, system efficiency and resilience. And that rapid isolation allows the system to isolate the parts of the network that experience failure from the rest of the system, the way the human body localizes a cut in our hand, and then enable a more rapid restoration, a faster restoration after the disturbance.

In all work we have done, we can reduce the size of outages, major outages in our nation that affect us more and more by one order of magnitude. The areas that are hit like Hurricane Sandy, with physical damage to the infrastructure, it can be localized to those areas and not to propagate in the wider area.

FLATOW: Give me a number, in the minute that I have left, of what this is all going to cost.

AMIN: It's going to cost - stronger grid, stronger backbone, it's going to cost $82 billion, or four billion a year, over 20 years. Smarter grid is going to cost us 17 to 20 billion a year for 20 years. So total of 23 to 30 billion total a year. The benefits far outweigh that, $49 million in reduced outages a year. Currently, we have 80 billion to over 188 billion. Four-and-a-half percent increase in efficiency. That's another 20 billion in benefits. In addition, we reduce CO2 emissions by 12 to 18 percent with a smart grid and job creation. Every dollar spent on smart grid technologies creates three to $6 in economic activity in the sector.

FLATOW: It sounds like a no-brainer.

AMIN: Absolutely. But there are many stakeholders, many kings on the carpet and split jurisdiction. And it needs leadership to move this forward.

FLATOW: Well, Massoud, well, I hope we don't have to keep having you on to talk about this.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: But it's always an enjoyable pleasure to talk with you.

AMIN: Likewise. Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Thank you for outlining the problem and the solution for us. Massoud Amin is professor of electrical and computer engineering and a university distinguished teaching professor at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Thank you. Have a good weekend.

AMIN: Thank you. You, too. Bye, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. That's all the time we have for today.

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