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It's Time for the U.S. Grid to 'Get Smart'

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Nevelyn Black's picture
Writer, Independent

Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

  • Member since 2017
  • 915 items added with 527,308 views
  • Jan 26, 2023

In the 1960’s classic television series, GET SMART, the work of Maxwell Smart for CONTROL to combat KAOS is not far from the challenges facing the country’s grid. Minus the laughs, the grid is combating comparable factors in day-to-day operations.  Decarbonization and modernization depend largely upon the innovation of new, ‘smart’ technology. This tech is well beyond Get Smart’s gadgets and his signature shoe phone.  It’s time for the U.S. grid to get smart.  Grid Enhancing Technologies (GETs) are seeing a much faster adoption in the UK and Australia.  The U.S. uses a return-on-equity business model and the return-on-equity for installing GETs is quite small.  GETs are hardware and software that increase capacity, efficiency, and reliability of the grid.  A smart grid could make the difference between a brief interruption with speedy restoration times and a major outage that leaves thousands in the dark for days.  By predicting events, identifying vulnerabilities, and calculating outcomes, grid operators can respond accordingly, track weather and cover gaps in renewable energy generation.  Recently, activists spoke out against a proposed system to design and install a smart grid infrastructure with Cleveland Utilities.  Chris Richardson, president of the Tennessee Cable and Broadband Association said, “Municipal utilities that have set up broadband projects have drastically underestimated expenses while significantly overestimating the amount of revenue they are able to bring in,” citing Johnson City in Tennessee and Traverse City in Michigan as examples. "These projects are putting significant stress on local finances.” Will the grid be able to prevent power loss by predicting events and discerning vulnerabilities?  

One Problem Solved, Two Problems Created

“Technology always creates two new problems for every one it solves,” commented an expert in political science.  On the high speed of advancements, he continued, “Human technology probably overran human coping mechanisms sometime in the later 19th century. The rest is history.”  What has history proven?  Some solutions create more problems.  Electric vehicles reduce air pollution but need an infrastructure of charging stations and could tax the grid beyond its capacity. Bitcoins provide a new way to transfer value but require an exorbitant amount of energy to verify transactions.  Despite additional challenges that result from one solution, the problem remains.

Innovation Discovery and Disruption

Innovation is about problem solving.  A problem persists, and out of necessity, a solution is designed, developed, and installed.  Author of Mapping Innovation, Greg Satell agrees, there is no one “true” path to innovation.  There are many ways the grid can be improved to meet future needs.   Grid Enhancing Technology (GET’s), yes, as in GET SMART, low-emissions generation sources, continued growth of distributed energy resources (DERs), the integration of digital and communication technologies, advancements in smart grid technologies, virtual reality technology, and advanced software solutions will all have a part in modernizing the grid. 

Focusing on four types of innovation, Satell’s inquisitive approach, helps us identify what sort of problems need solutions. Sustaining innovation is when we improve something we are already doing.  Breakthrough innovation refers to complex problems that require the exploration of unconventional problem solving.  Disruptive innovation refers to a shift in what works. Companies also shift, no longer improving their product and service but improving their business model and the way they do business.  Pathbreaking innovations begin with a discovery, through research, of some new phenomenon. Not everyone is excited about the discovery or the disruption. 

Enemies of Innovation

‘Repetition and complacency are the enemies of innovation,’ was stated in an article created by MIT Enterprise Forum CEE.  Some of the most common enemies of innovation are, impractical expectations, resistance to change and difficulty transitioning from one phase to the next.  In changing markets, adaptability is key.  Change must be embraced, and each phase of development must be mapped out. 

Utilities are partnering with companies outside the power sector, like software companies.  American Electric Power (AEP) is using innovative new augmented reality for modeling, monitoring, and managing various aspect of the grid. In Oregon, Exepto and Portland Gas and Electric have partnered to accelerate grid modernization and renewable energy outcomes.  According to a 2023 Outlook Report by Indigo Advisory, robotics, digital workers and AI based software will soon be used to better manage systems.

The Rate Gap

Typically, the term, rate gap, refers to the distance between assets and liabilities.  In this case, the gap defined is a different sum all together.  “There is a gap between the rate at which technology develops and the rate at which society develops,” said Louisa Heinrich, a futurist and consultant expert in data and the Internet of Things.  Computers' speed and power has doubled every one and a half to two years leaving some unnerved.  In fact, a study found that 60 percent of people worry that technology is moving too fast. Many of those concerns are linked to a lack of trust in regulations. “The trend of eroding trust in the technology sector continues,” said Sanjay Nair, technology chair for PR firm, Edelman.  "The trust decline may be small, but it is reflective of consistent concerns that technology companies are not adequately preparing society for the impact of their innovations.”

The Challenges

Bulbul Gupta, at Socos Labs, a think tank designing artificial intelligence to maximize human potential, responded, “Until government policies, regulators, can keep up with the speed of technology and AI, there is an inherent imbalance of power between technology’s potential to contribute to social and civic innovation and its execution in being used this way. If technology and AI can make decisions about people in milliseconds that can prevent their full social or civic engagement, the incentive structures to be used toward mitigating the problems of the digital age cannot then be solved by technology.”

Can the challenges facing the grid be solved via grid enhancing technology (GETs) or will these new technologies simply create more problems for the grid?


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