“Smart Grid” or “Strong Grid”? Words Matter

The Obama administration recently changed its nomenclature on a topic of much interest to readers of this publication and those in the power industry. The administration has said it prefers to talk about its policies advancing a “resilient grid” as opposed to its previous emphasis on developing a “smart grid.” The new policy thrust, for whatever it’s worth, is “grid hardening.”

To my mind, this is an entirely worthwhile and welcome development. I’ve long argued that the pursuit of a smart grid—an interactive system that allows utilities and (presumably) customers—to allow conversations between and among utility power providers and our homes is not a direction I want the industry to go. It raises security, privacy, and reliability concerns in my mind.

Without getting into the weeds on these issues, my preference has been for a “strong” grid that provides greater assurance that power flows without interruptions. I don’t care if my toaster can talk to my utility to find the least-cost (or more profitable) way to brown my bread. I care if I can’t toast my whole-wheat bread in the morning because the system is down.

For over a decade, the utility industry, led by the Electric Power Research Institute, has been pushing the idea of a “smart grid,” without much definition of what that means. It’s become a part of the conventional wisdom among those who ponder the future of the U.S. electric system. In many iterations, the smart grid meme has been used to argue, for example, that intelligent grid systems (whatever those might be) would have prevented the massive 2003 Northeast blackout.

That idea, of course, is bogus. The 2003 cascading outage was a product of a concatenation of physical events that had nothing to do with the IQ of the grid. It had mostly to do with the governance of the system, which, presumably, the 2005 Energy Policy Act that turned a voluntary system of grid regulation into a mandatory system was designed to cure.

Since then, the “smart grid” concept has come about, and some advocates have argued that interactivity between your house and the electric system will somehow increase the reliability of the bulk power system. That’s a false concept, with little evidence in support.

Let’s be clear. Most of what folks describe as smart grid applications relate to what we have defined as the local distribution system. That’s the interconnection between your house and the company that sells you power and bills you for it. But the problems that I worry about involve the high-voltage system that delivers power from the generator to the substations that send the power to your house.

That’s an important distinction, but one that can be overblown. The difference between the local distribution grid and the interstate transmission grid isn’t physical, but legal and regulatory. The Federal Power Act gives Uncle Sam (via FERC) authority to regulate interstate commerce, while giving the states the residue, whatever that might be. But the founders had no idea of the physics of electricity; the distinction between interstate and intrastate electric commerce is a matter of law and regulation. So the idea of a “smart grid” blends and blurs existing jurisdictional lines.

I’m in the federal-supremacy camp of supporting a “strong grid” over a “smart grid,” so the recent administration analysis wins my applause. The White House paper focuses on the ability of the grid to stand up to weather challenges. While it links the recommendations to a false assessment that global warming is increasing extreme weather events, the report’s basic conclusion makes sense:

Continued investment in grid modernization and resilience will mitigate these costs over time—saving the economy billions of dollars and reducing the hardship experienced by millions of Americans when extreme weather strikes.

Does this mean a shift in emphasis on investments in the grid? The administration paper does not make this case, but I think it is an inescapable conclusion. We should be spending increasingly-scarce federal dollars on a more muscular grid, better able to withstand physical assaults, than on a smarter grid able to tell us when to use electricity (often to the benefit of the bottom line of the electricity providers).

My friend, colleague, and long-time business partner Robert Marritz, proprietor of ElectricityPolicy.com, has it about right: “A resilient grid is a strong grid is a smart grid. A rose by any other name …”

On the other hand, given the task of apportioning the expenditures in a resource-constrained world, I’ll take the strong over the smart. Some roses are more attractive than others.

—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor