The Facility Technologist: Getting Smart With Energy

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the May 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Over the past 100 years, electrical and electronic systems have evolved beyond anything that would be familiar to someone living in the early 1900s. Microchips, cell phones, LED lighting, and television would all seem like miracles to them. But there is one system that would be familiar because it has not fundamentally changed in the last 100 years: the electrical distribution grid. This collection of wires, transformers, and meters is essentially the same as it was when first designed by Westinghouse and Tesla in the late 1800s. On either side of the grid—the power generation and the systems that consume the power—tremendous technological progress has been made, but the grid itself has stagnated, advancing only marginally with minor design improvements.

The current grid was fine when electrical usage was much lower, energy was cheaper, and it was fairly easy to predict loads from the analog systems that used power. But today’s environment includes dramatically larger demand, digital products that can cause unpredictable fluctuations, much higher energy costs, and power now flowing into the grid from renewable energy sources like solar and wind. This is a much different environment that requires better information and control to facilitate management. The current grid has reached the limits of its ability to meet the demands of the 21st century, showing its age through the blackouts, brownouts, and rolling blackouts experienced in recent years. The grid requires a makeover to transform it into a “smart grid” that can meet the demands of an increasingly power hungry digital society.

Let’s start with an overview of today’s electrical grid. It is a very simple system. Electricity is generated in a power plant and sent through main transmission lines. Voltage is reduced by transformers, and the power is sent to homes and businesses. There are only two ways to manage this power—reducing the amount generated at the plant or moving it from one major section of the grid to another. Since power can only be controlled at this macro level, the current grid is inherently limited and inefficient, and problems are difficult to isolate.

A smart grid will manage power far more precisely, allowing better management of all parts of the system so they work in concert for greater control, reliability, and efficiency. As an analogy, think of the difference in efficiency and control between a facility that uses simple thermostats and another that uses a building automation system (BAS). A BAS is far more efficient and capable, controlling individual components, sensing what is happening throughout the building, and dynamically managing systems for optimal results.

A smart grid will be analogous to a huge, nationwide electrical BAS. It will have sensors to tell it what is happening, have the ability to control discrete sections of the grid and individual components independently, and use computer power to manage the whole system. A smart grid will be comprised of millions of sensors and power regulating systems, all communicating with central computers aware of what is happening throughout the grid.

This elevated intelligence and control would mean greater efficiency for power plants and the grid, resulting in less waste. Today, power plants must always produce excess power to meet the expected peak demand for any given time period. Because this is basically an educated guess, there is always wasted electricity. By knowing exactly what is being used, utilities increase their ability to predict usage and produce accordingly, reducing waste. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy estimated smart grid savings between $46 billion and $117 billion over 20 years.

A smart grid will also be able to extend utilities’ communication with, and control of, customers’ power consuming systems with two-way communication through intelligent meters. Much like the demand response programs in use today, when a smart grid senses that power generation is nearing capacity, it can send signals to a facility that will tell systems there using electricity to slow or turn off consumption in order to alleviate potential brownouts or blackouts. For example, if a power station gets overloaded, a system operator would send signals to facilities to cut unnecessary loads or to reduce energy use temporarily. If this effort occurred in tens of thousands of buildings, it would have a huge positive effect on load management at the power station.

This same functionality could be used to manage electricity prices. Utilities could charge more for peak times, adjusting the cost up or down as loads vary throughout the day. Real time pricing will help to modify customer behavior, reducing peak production demands that are expensive and cause pollution.

A smart grid will also be more flexible, allowing new energy sources to be connected more easily. For example, many utilities currently allow consumers to sell electricity from solar or wind power back to the grid, but the current grid was designed for a one-way transmission from power station to user, so there is no way to measure and manage this power dynamically. If we all suddenly installed solar panels on our roofs, one sunny day could overload the grid and cause it to fail. A smart grid will be able to anticipate, measure, and manage power coming from many distributed sources.

A smart grid will also make it easier to distribute power on a national level; power producers in remote areas will be able to feed users across the country, which is difficult with the current system. This will be crucial with renewable energy becoming more common in facilities. Also, massive wind and solar power projects are planned for the midwest and southwest.

So what does all this mean for consumers and, especially, facility managers? One major benefit will be increased reliability. The current grid structure is extremely rudimentary and cannot react quickly to events and manage itself or isolate problem areas. Problems in one part of the grid can spread quickly, creating cascading failures that can bring down large areas (this happened in 2003 in the northeastern U.S.). Even things like power surges caused by cosmic radiation can bring down the current grid (this happened in Quebec, Canada in 1989 and cut power to millions). A smart grid will be able to manage power to ensure even distribution to prevent brownouts and isolate problem areas.

Through increased efficiency, a smart grid will also be instrumental in keeping electricity costs from rising dramatically. And by being more efficient with the electricity already being produced, it would be possible to meet demand with existing power plants rather than building new ones.

Enhanced security is another benefit. By implementing a grid that can sense what is happening within it, system operators will know when someone is trying to tamper with it. The electrical grid is a critical infrastructure, and an attack on it could be devastating. Recent reports state that spies have been mapping the U.S. utility infrastructure and hacking into its computers, planting software that could be used to disrupt it.

Another recent incident that points to the vulnerability of critical infrastructures is the cutting of lines in California that disabled phones and the Internet. It is impossible to police millions of miles of electrical cables, so intelligent systems will be vital in monitoring and securing this critical infrastructure.

Many realize the need for smart grid technology, and there is wide and growing support. Smart grid systems have been tried in a few cities with impressive results. Government sees it as a way to ensure reliable power, utilities see it as a way to ease pressure on power plants, and consumers want reliability and stable pricing.

In 2007, government action was taken with the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), which assigned the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) “primary responsibility to coordinate development of a framework that includes protocols and model standards for information management to achieve interoperability of smart grid devices and systems.”

And in early April, the Electric Power Research Institute, Inc. (EPRI) was selected by NIST to facilitate the development of a smart grid interoperability roadmap for the electricity sector. This is a step toward harmonizing standards. It is intended to ensure that different vendors’ products will work together and that consensus standards should drive down the cost of components/systems, reduce risk of early obsolescence, and spur innovation.

A smart grid will require money, commitment, and time. It will cost billions, probably take 20 years to implement, and requires some technology that has not yet been invented. The Obama administration has designated federal funds, which is a great start. But there is still a long way to go.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised
Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.

Past Facility Technologist columns can be found here. To chat about this topic and others in real time, visit FacilityBlog.