Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 19, 2017

Smart grid helps keep lights burning

System helps industry re-route electricity delivery in times of emergencies

Hazardous weather was the news of the day in the Chattanooga area on November 29, 2016.

Watches, warnings, and advisories were in effect. The winds were fierce, and tornados touched down in surrounding counties.

But thanks to smart grid technology, the electric power provider Electric Power Board of Chattanooga was ready.

“Smart grid automation either prevented or automatically restored more than 23,000 customer outages,” says John Pless, EPB public relations coordinator.

The age of the smart grid is upon us. The next few years of development in smart grids and smart homes may be as transformational to our culture as the growth of the telecommunications industry was in the 1990s.

The full extent of the power of the smart grid to enhance our lives and benefit our world remains to be discovered, but Chattanooga is at the heart of it.

The grid and the internet

The November 2016 storm was not the first time that the Chattanooga smart grid was credited with saving the day. Green Tech Media reports that the grid saved EPB $1.4 million during a 2012 storm.

Working hand-in-hand with the smart grid system is EPB’s lightning speed broadband service.

In 2010, Chattanooga saw the rollout of a long-planned fiber optic network that brought speeds of one gigabit per second.

EPB exceeded that milestone when it launched the world’s first community-wide 10-gigabit internet service in 2015, and it continues to set records. It’s all part of an increasingly connected utility infrastructure.

The 10-gigabit internet and the smart grid have led to an “explosion of growth in our technology sector,’’ Andy Berke, recently reelected city mayor, has said.

Chattanooga is booming with investments, the growth of tech companies and other businesses, an influx of hi-tech employees, a downtown revival and an emphasis on technology education.

Smart Grid in Chattanooga

EPB serves nearly 180,000 homes and businesses. The 600-square-mile coverage area includes greater Chattanooga, surrounding counties, and parts of north Georgia. EPB officials say that “the Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are utilizing EPB’s smart grid as a national model for researching and developing best practices.”

EPB’s smart grid success stems from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The company’s grid was one of 99 Smart Grid Investment Grant projects across the country. The aim of the joint venture between the DOE and the electricity industry, was to upgrade and modernize the electric grid while improving cybersecurity, interoperability and collecting data.

Green Business Certification Inc., the organization independently recognizing excellence in green business industry performance and practice globally, awarded EPB its top certification.

The certification is known as Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal. “It’s important to recognize that PEER is a leadership standard and it’s not easy to achieve,’’ explains Jamie Statter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

How It Works

In the quest to “collect an unprecedented level of data,’’ Recovery Act investors financed the installation of over 1,000 sensors across North America. The $328 million-dollar project measures operations on the grid to improve reliability, efficiency and cost savings.

To monitor the health of the North American smart grid network in real time, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville worked with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop a map of the entire network. Using GPS-capable devices, engineers put together a color-coded display that shows the changes to the grid as they occur.

All this information, including the map of synchronized sensors, is available at the Smartgrid.gov website.

The network, says the DOE, is the broadest wide-area electric grid sensor network in the world … “allowing power system engineers to see the dynamic behavior of the total interconnected electric grid and to understand how the various geographical regions interact with one another.”

The key component of the EPB smart grid is the fiber optic network, completed in 2011, that contains over 8,000 miles of fiber optic lines.

The grid also uses about 1,200 IntelliRupter switches. A spokesman for the manufacturer S&C Electric Company calls the equipment “a lifesaver for distribution system equipment, and it uses 95 percent less energy during fault detection than earlier technology and automatically restores power in seconds.’’

With all the sensors and controls throughout the network, EPB uses the smart grid system to manage and analyze data. Some of those data points are called smart meters, and EPB has deployed about 175,000 of them.

Smart meters are also key components in smart homes, which can be set up in partnership with electric providers to manager customer electric usage.

EPB partnered with Tantalus Systems Corp. in 2009 to deploy its city-wide smart grid network. The Tantalus Utility Network uses the internet protocol and takes advantage of EPB’s large fiber optic network as well as remote wireless connections.

Tantalus smart meters and other equipment populate the EPB smart grid.

Dealing with the weather

The EPB smart grid has reduced power outages by an average of 60, saving the community about $60 million a year. During the storms of November 29-30, 2016, as Times Free Press reporter Dave Flessner explains, the EPB smart grid avoided 90 percent of expected power outages.

Local television channels interrupted regularly scheduled programming on that stormy night. Meteorologists pointed out where potential tornados might touch down based on their own advanced technical data. Winds whipped against houses on area mountains.

And residents hoped that their power would stay on. For most, it did.

Inhabitants of West Virginia were not so lucky when a menacing ‘derecho,’ a Spanish term that refers to a major storm or an inland hurricane, swept through the Mountain State a few years ago. The huge windstorm swept across the Mid-Atlantic States in June 2012. Nearly 700,000 customers lost power. In Virginia, it was 1 million.

Some customers were without power for weeks. Groceries stores had to throw out food. It was a disaster.

Would a robust smart grid have improved restoration times after the devastating derecho that brought down over 4 million customers? It couldn’t hurt.

“What gets damaged by storms are mainly local distribution lines, local relays and smaller transformers,” says Scott Borg, director of the research group U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit.

“When storms cause lots of people to lose power for longer periods, this is usually because lots of things have been damaged in lots of locations.”

“Did $8 Billion in Government Smart-Grid Investments Make a Difference?” Charlie Chen asked in an article for Greentech Media. He says one way to answer the question is to look at the duration of outages based on SGIG data.

“Indeed, there is strong correlation between the deployments of smart meters and the decrease of outage duration for events caused by severe weather,” he reports. “The duration of the severe-weather outages tapers downward after 2011, after the deployment of 14 million smart meters and 19,000 units of distribution equipment (e.g., automated switches and capacitors) by 2012.”

A Two-Way Street

So, what makes a smart grid smart?

It’s “the digital technology that allows for two-way communication between the utility and its customers and the sensing along the transmission,’’ according to Smartgrid.gov.

The site goes on to list the benefits of the smart grid:

-- More efficient transmission of electricity

-- Quicker restoration of electricity after power disturbances

-- Reduced operations and management costs for utilities and ultimately lower power costs for consumers

-- Reduced peak demand, which will also help lower electricity rates

-- Increased integration of large-scale renewable energy systems

-- Better integration of customer-owner power generation systems, including renewable energy systems

-- Improved security

It also gives consumers control. Smart meters and other devices in the smart home or business give the consumer information about how electricity is being used.

Partnership with the electric provider also gives the consumer options in the management of the service. Financial incentives, such as time-of-use rates, may be offered to customers charging their plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). The provider may even seek permission to use PEV batteries as a backup power source.

Smart meters become the interface between the homeowner and the electric company. Cooperating with the energy provider, consumers will use computerized controls to participate in the efficient management of electric power. It’s all about customer engagement.

The smart grid can play a critical role in power outage prevention.

Intelligent devices with distribution automation capabilities can pinpoint fault locations and feed that information back to grid operators. Automatic or technician-directed reroutes can bypass the faults and minimize disruption.

Dealing with weather events is not the only job of smart grid technology. It can also help manage the power supply to deal with shortages and is effective for preventing “brownouts.’’

Cyber challenges

Some critics have suggested that smart grids are a dumb idea.

Adding network connectivity to America’s utility infrastructure can make the nation more vulnerable to cyberterrorism and other cybercrimes, they say. The electromagnetic radiation from increasing radio frequency devices in homes might also harm health, and allowing public utility companies to control devices in homes could be considered an alarming invasion of privacy.

The security of America’s electric grid is on the minds of many. The website, The Hill, dealt with the issue in the May 2016 article, “Why a power grid attack is a nightmare scenario.’’ Transportation down. Cell phones down. Hospitals running out of fuel. Garbage in the streets.

If you think the derecho was bad, wait till hackers knock out the grid. It could be an act of war. In response to the devastation, the military would be mobilized. Bombs would fall. Or maybe not.

Cyberattacks on power infrastructure have been done before. While a Washington Post report of Russian hacking on a Vermont utility was disputed by Snopes, reports that Russia brought down Ukraine’s power grid using malware called “BlackEnergy” are more believable.

But Dr. Thomas Rid of King’s College London’s Department of War Studies states attackers need “target intelligence” to do real damage. Getting the precise information needed to target key infrastructure points is not that easy.

The smart grid industry is working hard on safeguards.

The DOE combats threats through its Cybersecurity for Energy Delivery Systems program. In addition, EPB works with the company Aimetis Corp to improve infrastructure security.

Environmental impact

The environment is a major concern for the smart grid industry. A DOE report written by Alex Zheng while a graduate student at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School outlines four ways that the smart grid will reduce emissions:

-- Enabling the integration of clean, renewable generation sources

-- Reducing electrical losses

-- Increasing penetration of distributed energy resources

-- Increasing energy conservation through feedback to consumers

The grid before us

The DOE reports six stakeholders in their publication, “What the Smart Grid Means to America’s Future.’’ Stakeholders are consumer advocates, utilities, technology providers, environmental groups, regulators, and policymakers.

The innovations of the telecommunications industry were a precursor to the technology advancements of the smart grid. Just as the Internet of Things (IoT) is now transforming the internet, the connected world of the electric power infrastructure holds tremendous potential for providers like EPB.

Data points are essential to bringing it all together. Sensors everywhere across the transmission network feed data back to central management. Providers can harness the power of big data and analytics – even artificial intelligence – as part of a self-healing and self-improving power network. Smart meters in homes and businesses allow interaction between provider and consumer.

Grid modernization is the goal of the industry. The Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University is partnering with the DOE on The Smart Grid Maturity Model. A spokesman on an SEI video says that SGMM “is a management tool that provides a common language and a common framework that define key elements of the smart grid transformation.”

Technology adoption is a key factor in the success of the smart grid. As stakeholders recognize the benefits of making smart technology ubiquitous, development will continue at a steady pace.

The influence of technology on our lives is growing. It is a two-edged sword.

As we allow technology to help us control various aspects of our lives, we become more dependent on it.