Talking Smart Grid Talk

Buzzwords, jargon, and technical language are inevitable features of any discipline, and they abound in the world of electric power generation and distribution. Now the “smart grid” has introduced a new set of acronyms, arcane references, and baffling terms that can befuddle even an experienced analyst.

To the end of demystifying, or at least attempting to clarify, the technical and policy babble surrounding the emerging technology of the smart grid (a largely undefined term in itself), veteran consultant and analyst Christine Hertzog has produced the Smart Grid Dictionary (available at smartgridlibrary.com). The laudable goal of the book is to begin to make intelligible the terms that gridologists throw around at meetings, conferences, and in opaque technical papers.

There’s a ancient Chinese aphorism that wisdom begins with knowing the name of the subject, and Hertzog helps to sort out the nomenclature of the smart grid in ways that dumb folks, like me, can understand. But she too often falls short of clarity, reflecting the difficulty of translating a buzzificated technology where the vocabulary gets denser with each technical paper.

The dictionary begins, correctly, with numbers, not words. When I power up my Kindle book reader (which I love dearly), it sometimes tells me that my wireless connection is 3G. What’s that? Says Hertzog, 3G is a term that “describes the third generation in mobile systems evolution. 3G systems have higher data transmission speeds and additional services and typically use new radio spectrums that were not available to 2G networks.” Presumably, 2G was slower, and 1G, well . . . I think I get it.

In the land of the alphabet, the dictionary moves predictably from A to Z. In the “A” chapter, we can learn the evolution of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards for two-way communications from ANSI C12.18 to C12.22. However, I must confess, I can’t understand the nuanced differences, and I wonder what happened to ANSI C12.20, which appears to be missing in action.

Hertzog’s definitions sometimes fly far over my head, other than my understanding that they specify how various pieces of hardware can talk to each other through software. Maybe that’s all I need to know.

When we get to “F”, I see a real problem with Hertzog’s prowess as a lexicographer. She has a tendency to define terms in reference to undefined terms. Here’s an example: “Femtocell.” This, she writes, is “A very low power 3G mobile phone base station that uses licensed radio spectrum and can also connect via standard broadband DSL or cable service to a mobile service provider. The femtocell encrypts all voice and data sent and received. It has potential as a HAN communication device.” Say what?

Here’s another, from the “N” chapter: “Non-dispatchable demand response.” This, she writes, constitutes “Voluntary (on the part of the consumer) demand response reductions based on pricing structures like TOU, CPP, realtime pricing, and system peak response transmission tariffs, and are not based on instructions from a control center.” Sorry, this is not stuff for novices. I can parse this, but I’ve been covering this industry for decades.

Finally, at “Z,” we have “Zigbee,” defined as “A wireless mesh networking specification based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard to enable low-cost, low-power, wireless sensor networks for HAN applications and other uses.” Again, not exactly a pellucid definition. Beats me what she means.

Nonetheless, this is a very worthwhile compendium of words and terms that one comes across in the world of the smart (and “I’m smarter than you are”) grid. I’m keeping it on my bookshelf (a wooden construction of frames and platforms designed to store standard, printed publications) as a useful reference.

But I’m looking forward to the next edition, which, I hope, will offer fewer arcane definitions of arcane terms and more common language explications of those buzzwords.

—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor.