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Why the Smart Grid Needs to Ditch Its Dated Architecture, Now

powergridgeneric9The term “batch processing” was coined back in the 1950’s in the days of mainframe computers: A computer operator would feed a batch of punch cards into the computer, which would then process the information during a scheduled time, and hopefully deliver the needed information back the next morning. Compare that to today, when most computer processing is done through real-time and “event-driven” processing — the data is fed in and the computer quickly spits each bit of info out in seconds. Broadband networks connected to our computers have been built out around this idea of real-time computing.

But when it comes to the power grid, and the future smart grid, most utilities are still living in the days of batch processing, says Jeff Taft, Accenture’s smart grid chief architect (Accenture sells services and software that can bridge the gap between these two systems — more on that below). While batch processing might be a good fit some smart grid applications — such as standard monthly billing and data-heavy non time-sensitive processes — a smart grid based on batch processing would mean a power grid that’s a lot less intelligent than many of our modern communication networks and computing systems, and one that could stifle innovation in the power industry.

For example, many utilities do not plan to build networks that will support real-time energy consumption feedback for customers. I touched on that subject earlier this year in a post entitled “Why the Smart Grid Won’t Have the Innovations of the Internet Any Time Soon.” After interviews with a handful of utilities, it was clear to me that while most utilities are building networks that can collect data from a smart meter every 15 minutes, they’re planning to bring that data to the utility processing center only every 24 hours. That’s pretty much the idea behind old-skool batch processing.

As I noted in my previous article, non-real-time processing of consumer energy data could be less effective for changing consumer energy consumption behavior, since the consequences of different choices — running an appliance at peak vs. non-peak hours, for example — won’t be apparent until a day later. Without real time processing utilities could miss out on the innovations of some real-time-centric applications (see my comparison to GPS networks, which needed real time data in order for the killer app — turn-by-turn driving directions — to emerge). And ultimately batch-oriented systems could be less intelligent, less able to react quickly to specific events and less advanced than what current computing technology can offer.

There are two main reasons for why utilities have, and are continuing to maintain, this type of architecture. First, processing information in batches, with less robust networks, can keep a utility’s costs down. Another reason is that utility systems just haven’t needed this type of intelligence in the past, so it’s still unclear where it would and would not make sense for a utility to make the extra investment for real time processing. But the fact is that most utilities are setting up their future smart grid networks in this way, meaning that this technology could be around for a long time to come — utility infrastructure lasts for 30-50 years in some cases.

Fortunately, new software upgrades and services could allow this old-style infrastructure to process data closer to real time. In particular, Accenture has been paying attention to this problem, and as Taft explained to us, the consulting and services company, which has about 300 utility clients, offers a product called INDE (stands for Intelligent Network Data Enterprise), which delivers software, database services and a system to bridge the gap between batch processing and real time processing for utilities.

David Haak, Accenture’s global lead for smart grid assets and services strategy, described INDE as “the central nervous system” for a smart grid project. Haak and Taft say that Xcel Energy has been using its INDE system for its Boulder Smart Grid City project, and has been able to more quickly process energy information closer to real time across the network. Before it installed INDE, Xcel Energy wasn’t able to accept the individual inputs for a vast number of devices, from meters to in home energy devices, explained the Taft.

While Accenture’s INDE won’t solve the problem of the batch-processing mentality at utilities, it will help with the transition. In the end it’s all about the most efficient way to process a whole lot of information about energy and develop systems that can quickly react to, and interact with, the millions of points on the network (that’s us). To make sure real-time processing plays a much bigger part of the smart grid in the near term, utilities need to increasingly listen to companies like Accenture that have strong roots in the information technology industry and can share a lot of lessons learned from computing and the architecture of the Internet.

15 Responses to “Why the Smart Grid Needs to Ditch Its Dated Architecture, Now”

  1. Libran Lover – I just wanted to clarify what is, and what isn’t, real-time information! The internet and all it’s glory is not a real-time system, pediod. The basic assumption of a real-time system is that you can tell me exactly when something will be happen. Inconsistent delays are the death of most systems attempting to become real-time. So, the utility will never feed you real-time data.

    Everyone must wash, dry, iron, cook, vaccum, light, etc. All this technology has -0- return unless you are going to wash your clothes after midnight, work the night-shift, etc. All this waste of effort is going to achieve is that one user is going to consume someone elses electricty at a cost-benefit to one and a cost-negative to the other. Anotherwords, All you So. Cal. folks are going to buy up my cheap local power here in Alabama, while I will have no choice but to buy less at a higher cost than I normally do, most likely from New York!~ Where the price is the highest. Another form of social redistribution of wealth and/or resources.

    Bob – I’d love to see you run a business, or should I say run a non-business on the government payroll. Be for real! We can’t all go back to the caves, and I’d bet you’d be the first to complain. PS how would you feel if I thought like this – Colorado can hold back all the water it wants, for its own benefit by cutting off the water down stream unless payment is made – another words, California … go get your own. And quit wasting it trying to put out fires, let them burn as nature intened.

    America is getting stupider by the day!

    • Bob Wallace

      Perhaps not real time data over the web, but perhaps so. What’s to say that there won’t be real time wi-fi feed from future smart meters to your computer?

      And how “real” does the time frame need to be? If I install a new air conditioner do I need to know what it’s pulling the moment I turn it on? Or can I wait 15 minutes or an hour or a week to find out and still benefit from the knowledge?

      It’s not about knowing what you’re spending for electricity on a second to second base. It’s about getting adequate information to let you control your spending.

      Some current electrical devices can certainly be run off-peak. Pool sweeps/cleaners and dishwashers are two examples.

      Appliances can be redesigned so that they can be run off-peak. We already have combo clothswasher/dryers. No reason that something along that line couldn’t be refined so that laundry could be done in the middle of the night and an occasional ‘fluff’ spin added if desired to keep things from wrinkling.

      The insulation in freezers could be increased to allow them to drift through peak hours without allowing temps to rise too much.

      And air conditioners can store “cool” with thermal mass during off-peak to lower their electricity needs on-peak. (Already being done on at the commercial level.)

      As for running a business and going back to caves, I really don’t understand your point.

      But if it’s relevant, I ran a business successfully enough that was able to retire at the age of 44. Lived a comfortable life for the last 21+ years off of that success.

      And I’ve lived almost all of that life off-grid. About 90% of my electricity comes from solar panels.

      I’ve got a most comfortable “cave”…. ;o)

  2. This company is doing it in realtime. Balancing peak and off peak surges in the grid by coal fired plants would prevent wasted surplus energy. It is like the government use to tell the farmers not to farm decades ago and paid them to just turn the dirt. We need Energy saving devices that sends electricity back to the grid. Sending surplus energy back to the grid is what this whole thing is about. Energy storage will be a big piece of the pie, Giant Lithium battery facilities, Sodium Salt batterys both for long term energy storage. Flywheels for short term energy swings realtime. There are also wind and solar plants under construction.

    • Bob Wallace

      Just saw this one…

      “Balancing peak and off peak surges in the grid by coal fired plants would prevent wasted surplus energy.”

      Did you mis-write? Coal fired plants don’t cause surges. They sort of chug along at a constant speed.

      We do now have surplus power in some places at night. With some storage we could shift that surplus to peak times. The largest storage method we have at the moment is pump-up hydro. Compressed air (CAES), we’ve got one facility with at least one more in the process of being constructed.

      Bring more wind on line, create more storage and we can start shutting down some of that dirty coal.

      And just last week one more coal plant was permitted to switch to biomass. Slowly we get off fossils….

      BTW, the government payed farmers to not turn the soil. To “park” their fields (The Land Bank) and let them produce nothing as a way to support crop prices for other farmers. We had too much food production and farmers were going bankrupt.

      My grandfather put most of his farm in the Land Bank during his last years. And it provided income for my grandmother after he was gone.

  3. Bob Wallace

    More states need to change their utility laws to be something like California’s in which utility companies can make money by selling less energy, not selling more.

    Once conservation is profitable then utility companies will start seeing reason to make smart metering smart.

    Just look at the study in North Carolina in which people were given smart meters and some help in learning how to reduce their power usages. Overall electricity consumption dropped 20%.

    A 20% drop in consumption nation wide would allow us to shut down half our coal plants right now.

  4. Libran Lover

    The reality is that the general public will be getting the real-time energy usage information from their own personal monitoring meters, long before the utilities have the capability of delivering this information in real-time. The utilities will get there eventually of course, but that time is too far beyond the horizon and nobody is really thinking about it as an immediate need.