Message from “the edge” – SmartGrid and Transmission

Message from “the edge” - SmartGrid and Transmission 1

At this point in my series on SmartGrid it is time to confess my background. I spent most of my 28 year career in the nuclear industry concerned with the design, analysis and operation of fuel and reactor cores. I always considered most of the rest of the system as plumbing designed to bring water to my domain. The turbine was a pinwheel on the far end of the machine. Albeit, a really BIG pinwheel.

That pinwheel, its ancillary systems, and the generator are the main sources of potential operational issues associated with nuclear power. Each operating cycle of the reactor must be designed to tolerate generator load rejects, turbine trips, and a host of other anticipated operational events.

So, why do I mention all of this in a discussion of transmission and SmartGrid? Because some of the most severe tests of my beautiful designs come as a result of grid failures forcing reactor shutdowns.

Spending a few hours in SmartGrid bootcamp at the start of grid week gave me a much greater appreciation of the issues around transmission and how Smart Grid might alleviate some of those problems. During the rest of the week, I became convinced that much of the SmartGrid efforts and spend should concentrate on this area of the system.

Current state of affairs in transmission vary widely from utility to utility depending on the vision and resources of the utility, the astuteness of the public utilities commissions (PUCs) or other rate setting commissions, and the demands of the consumers. In the worst cases, there is virtually no sensing or control devices and the grid is completely reliant on 19th century technology. Edison and Westinghouse could walk into those systems and recognize and operate them. Many utilities have installed SCADA, Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition, systemsthat allow some level of sensing and control. However, few utilities tie their SCADA systems together into a more coherent shole. Beyond SCADA improved sensing devices in the switch yards or along the high voltage lines to identifiy faults more quickly and prevent outages are almost non-exetant except in a few isolated cases.


Sadly most PUCs are loathe to grant utilities rate incentives to upgrade this equipment unless a natural disaster or major power interruption makes it clear how critical such a system is. This is the first, and one of the most important, aspects of SmartGrid’s initiatives. By some measures the lower electricity losses of such improvements saves 3-5% of total electrical generation.

Right on the heels of this initiative comes a second significant consideration for transmission. As I discussed in previous blogs, the grid was designed to work as a regional unit  – most of the energy consumed in a region is generated in that region. The regions have very limited interconnection for transmitting power between them. The limited intertie allows issues to be isolated to one region and prevents blackout from spreading nationwide. In the days of limited sensing and automation, when the grid was first designed, these physical boundaries were the only practical way to isolate regions.nercregionmap

However, if society continues to demand increase use of solar and wind, these regional grids will have to be much more strongly connected. As the figure shows, for wind, the areas of the country with relatively good wind potential are geographically remot from the major population centers where primary consumption occurs. Solar is even more concentrated in the desert southwest.Steve-Chu-4774

Even conventional power sources such as nuclear, coal and natural gas will need to leverage more closely inter-related regions. The US population has become increasingly wary of any industrial installations near population centers. As a nuclear advocate, I’ve seen the early development of this disease called NIMBY (Not In My BackYard). In communities where nuclear power plants currently operate the population has found them to be good neighbors providing jobs and tax revenue with no attendant air or water pollution. However, convincing new communities to allow construction of any major industrial facility is typically met with fierce opposition. Usually by people living near a proposed facility who fear loss of property value and some insidious pollution that they believe must come from any such facility.

This opposition will drive conventional power facilities to less populated areas of the country and will require transportation of the resulting electricity across the country to the locations needing the power. Ironically, sighting of more high voltage lines also falls victim to NIMBY’s insidious disease. This will require astute and consistent government leadership at the national, state, and local levels and reslute and visionary utility executives to work together to make this happen. While the media has spent much time on the consumer end of SmartGrid, the issues identified here at transmission have much greater impact and are in serious need of balanced, clear reporting to help the public form educated opinions regarding installation of power plants, transmission switch yards, and high voltage lines in or near their homes and communities.

Without the successful public private partnership to upgrade and expand out transmission facilities the US is in real danger of significant issues in delivering electricity to power our homes, our industry and our economy.

2 thoughts on “Message from “the edge” – SmartGrid and Transmission”

Comments are closed.