The U.S. utility industry – particularly the electric-producing branch of it, there also are natural gas and water utilities – has found itself in a new, and very uncomfortable, position. Throughout the first quarter of 2009 it was front and center in the political arena.
Politics has been involved in the U.S. electric generation and distribution industry since its founding in the late 19th Century by Thomas Edison. Utilities have been regulated entities almost since the beginning and especially after the 1930s when the federal government began to take a much greater role in the direction and regulation of private enterprise and national economics.
What is new as we are about to enter the second decade of the 21st Century is that not only is the industry being in large part blamed for a newly discovered pollutant, carbon dioxide, which is naturally ubiquitous in the Earth’s atmosphere, but it also is being tasked with pulling the nation out of its worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Oh, and in your spare time, electric utilities, enable the remaking of the automobile industry, eliminate the fossil fuels which you have used to generate ubiquitous electricity for 100 years, and accomplish all this while remaining fiscally sound and providing service to all Americans. Finally, please don’t make electricity unaffordable for the majority of Americans.
It’s doubtful that very many people have ever accused politicians of being logical, but in 2009 they seem to have decided to simultaneously defy the laws of physics, gravity, time, history and economics. They want the industry to completely remake itself, going from the centralized large-plant generation model created by Edison to widely dispersed smaller-generation; from fossil fuel generation to clean “renewable” generation; from being a mostly manually controlled and maintained system to becoming a self-healing ubiquitously digitized and computer-controlled enterprise; from a marginally profitable (5-7 percent) mostly privately owned system to a massive tax collection system for the federal government.
Is all this possible? The answer likely is yes, but in the timeframe being posited, no.
Despite political co-option of the terms “intelligent utility” and “smart grid” in recent times, the electric utility industry has been working in these directions for many years. Distribution automation (DA) – being able to control the grid remotely – is nothing new. Utilities have been working on DA and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems for more than 20 years. They also have been building out communications systems, first analog radio for dispatching service crews to far-flung territories, and in recent times, digital systems to reach all of the millions of pieces of equipment they service. The terms themselves were not invented by politicians, but by utilities themselves.
Prior to 2009, all of these concepts were under way at utilities. WE Energies has a working “pod” of all digital, self-healing, radial-designed feeders that works. The concept is being tried in Oklahoma, Canada and elsewhere. But the pods are small and still experimental. Pacific Gas and Electric, PEPCO and a few others have demonstration projects of “artificial intelligence” on the grid to automatically switch power around outages. TVA and several others have new substation-level servers that allow communications with, data collection from and monitoring of IEDs (Intelligent electrical devices) while simultaneously providing a “view” into the grid from anywhere else in the utility, including the boardroom. But all of these are relatively small-scale installations at this point. To distribute them across the national grid is going to take time and a tremendous amount of money. The transformation to a smart grid is under way and accelerating. However, to this point, the penetration is relatively small. Most
of the grid still is big and dumb.
Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) actually was invented by utilities, although vendors serving the industry have greatly advanced the art since the mid-1990s. Utilities installed earlier-generation AMI, called automated meter reading (AMR) for about 50 percent of all customers, although the other 50 percent still were being read by meter readers traipsing through people’s yards.
AMI, which allows two-way communications with the meters (AMR is mostly one-way), is advancing rapidly, but still has reached less than 20 percent of American homes, according to research by AMI guru Howard Scott and Sierra Energy Group, the research and analysis division of Energy Central. Large-scale installations by Southern Company, Pacific Gas and Electric, Edison International and San Diego Gas and Electric, are pushing that percentage up rapidly in 2009, and other utilities were in various stages of pilots. The first installation of a true two-way metering system was at Kansas City Power & Light Co. (now Great Plains Energy) in the mid-1990s.
So the intelligent utility and smart grid were under development by utilities before politicians got into the act. However, the build-out was expected to take perhaps 30 years or more before completed down to the smallest municipal and co-operative utilities. Many of the smaller utilities haven’t even started pilots. Xcel Energy, Minneapolis, is building a smartgrid model in one city, Boulder, Col., but by May, 2009, two of the primary architects of the effort, Ray Gogel and Mike Carlson, had left Xcel. Austin Energy has parts of a smart grid installed, but it still reaches only a portion of Austin’s population and “home automation” reaches an even smaller proportion.
There are numerous “paper” models existent for these concepts. One, developed by Sierra Energy Group more than three years ago, is shown in Figure 1.
Major other portions of what is being envisioned by politicians have yet to be invented or developed. There is no reasonably priced, reasonably practical electric car, nor standardized connection systems to re-charge them. There are no large-scale transmission systems to reach remote windmill farms or solar-generating facilities and there is large-scale resistance from environmentalists to building such transmission facilities. Despite some political pronouncements, renewable generation, other than hydroelectric dams, still produces less than 3 percent of America’s electricity and that percentage is climbing very slowly.
Yes, the federal government was throwing some money at the build-out in early 2009, about $4 billion for smart grid and some $30-$45 billion at renewable energy. But these are drops in the bucket to the amount of money – estimated by responsible economists at $3 trillion or more – required just to build and replace the aging transmission systems and automate the grid. This is money utilities don’t have and can’t get without making the cost of electricity prohibitive for a large percentage of the population. Despite one political pronouncement, windmills in the Atlantic Ocean are not going to replace coal-fired generation in any conceivable time frame, certainly not in the four years of the current administration.
Then, you have global warming. As a political movement, global warming serves as a useful stick to the carrot of federal funding for renewable energy. However, the costs for the average American of any type of tax on carbon dioxide are likely to be very heavy.
In the midst of all this, utilities still have to go to public service commissions in all 50 states for permission to raise rates. If they can’t raise rates – something resisted by most PSCs – they can’t generate the cash to pay for this massive build-out. PSC commissioners also are politicians, by the way, with an average tenure of only about four years, which is hardly long enough to learn how the industry works, much less how to radically reconfigure it in a similar time-frame.
Despite a shortage of engineers and other highly skilled workers in the United States, the smart grid and intelligent utilities will be built in the U.S. But it is a generational transformation, not something that can be done overnight. To expect the utility industry to gear up to get all this done in time to “pull us out” of the most serious recession of modern times just isn’t realistic – it’s political. Add to the scale of the problem political wrangling over every concept and every dollar, mix in a lot of government bureaucracy that takes months to decide how to distribute deficit dollars, and throw in carbon mitigation for global warming and it’s a recipe for disaster. Expect the lights to start flickering along about…now. Whether they only flicker or go out for longer periods is out of the hands of utilities – it’s become a political issue.