Feb 08 2023

Stakeholders Eye Advantages of Smart Grid Edge Computing

Future power demands will require a new approach to data management.

America’s electrical infrastructure is a complex ecosystem of multigenerational technologies with an evolving mandate to include renewable energy sources. The future isn’t possible without smart grid systems.

A more sprawling network is hard to imagine. The United States can produce up to 1.2 million megawatts of electricity and delivers it to 330 million people over more than 600,000 circuit miles of transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of distribution lines, according to the Department of Energy. The first power grids built in the late 19th century were simple affairs: Electricity was generated at a central power station and delivered nearby to customers.

That system grew more complex with long-distance transmission between states and regions. Add the more recent innovations of intermittent wind and solar power — and customers generating their own electricity and sharing it back into the network — and the challenge becomes clearer.

Luckily, billions of federal dollars have been made available to make upgrades. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 matched public and private money to fund 130 projects and helped jump-start the evolution to smart grids. Last year, the Biden administration launched a $2.5 billion Transmission Facilitation Program to modernize and expand the capacity of the nation’s power infrastructure.

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“Expanding and strengthening our power grid means we can get Americans power where and when they need it most, and in so doing deploy the clean energy we need to reach our climate goals and ultimately bring down energy costs,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in a statement. “With nearly 70% of the nation’s grid more than 25 years old, the president’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a pivotal catalyst for transmission projects across the nation.” 

The agency touted independent estimates that say the U.S. needs to increase electricity transmission systems by 60 percent by 2030, “and may need to triple it by 2050 to meet the country’s increase in renewable generation and expanding electrification needs.”

So far, so good. The DOE says investments in smart grid technology were $6.4 billion in 2018 and are expected to grow to $16.4 billion annually by 2026.

What Is a Smart Grid?

A smart grid is the melding of traditional power generation and transmission equipment with cyber innovations, including sensors, computing power, automation, advanced metering and control, and data management. What was originally a highly centralized operating environment becomes a two-way information stream with the network reporting back in real time.

According to experts, a smart grid makes transmission more efficient, allows quicker restoration, lowers operational costs for utilities (and theoretically customers) and increases the integration of renewable energy sources.

“A lot of these technologies can enhance reliability and respond to outages,” says Paul Zummo, director of research and development for the American Public Power Association. The group represents public electric utilities in 49 states and provides grant funding for next-generation pilot projects.

For example, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory used a grant to develop a tool to make it easier for utilities to connect residential solar panels to the grid. The City of Rock Hill, S.C., is using its grant money to help make fault detection more visible to repair crews to shorten the duration of power outages.

Jennifer Granholm
Expanding and strengthening our power grid means we can get Americans power where and when they need it most.”

Jennifer Granholm Secretary of Energy

How Do Smart Grids Help State and Local Public Utilities?

Public utilities are fast installing residential smart meters, and a penetration rate of 90 percent is expected by 2030, according to the consulting firm Guidehouse. These devices do the standard tracking of electricity usage but also provide a data stream back to the utility, enabling it to monitor daily and hourly consumption. This is typically offered to customers on an online dashboard.

As StateTech has reported, many public utilities are sharing that information with citizens through mobile apps.

With smart grids, electricity service can be started or stopped without a technician coming to the house. For the utility, a smart meter provides valuable data on fluctuating energy use that is fed into power management programs.

The next step in the evolution is smart home appliances that talk directly to the utility company and can be modulated remotely to use less electricity when there is heavy demand on the grid. However, pushing smart sensors down to the household level has its challenges, says Ted Burhans, director of distributed energy resource technology for the Smart Electric Power Alliance.

“Utilities are very good at balancing load and generation,” he says. “From there, there are substation controls, and all these cascade down to transformers and understanding what’s happening there.”

The increasing oversight required at the appliance level causes heartburn. “As you cross over into managing a customer’s device, data is a huge challenge,” Burhans says, and so is privacy. “Where do you store it? Who uses it?”

EXPLORE: How the U.S. Department of Energy is working to protect the electrical grid.

How Can Governments Modernize Smart Grids with Edge Computing?

Electric utilities are conservative by design. The ultimate priority is keeping the power on. To that end, the use of edge computing is in its infancy in the sector.

“There’s some processing out with the nodes, but not a lot,” Burhans says. “Mostly, it’s handed back to the central system.”

However, recognition of the advantages of edge computing is growing. State and local government initiatives have shown fruitful results using edge computing when deploying video surveillance. With smart meters, predictive maintenance algorithms and outage sensors generating more data on the grid, experts know backhauling makes diminishing sense.

“If you transported all of that data to a data center, it would be enormous,” says Dan Madey, senior solution architect for Cisco.

A group of utilities has joined forces to develop a next-generation architecture called the Open Field Message Bus. It combines edge computing with traditional supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software systems.

Madey sees a twentyfold increase in nodes coming: “The edge will then synchronize.”

The New York Power Authority is already using in situ sensor analytics on its power lines where network or cellular bandwidth isn’t sufficient. “Moving forward, there will be a mix of cases where edge computing makes more sense than feeding raw data into a hub and creating new analytics centrally,” NYPA spokesperson Alex Chiaravalle says.

At the birth of the commercial internet, networking companies racing to lay fiber in the ground were fond of saying, “If you’re not scared, you just don’t understand.” Power utilities face much the same pressure. “The grid is going to need to produce and transport much more electricity than in the past,” Madey says.

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