Does the Grid Need Smarter Engineers?

This past summer has given me ample opportunity to do something I really enjoy: travel. One of the best trips I took was to the Power & Energy Society’s (PES) annual general meeting. As a consulting engineer and T&D World’s technical writer, the PES meeting helps me stay current with cutting-edge technology and state-of-the-art tech toys. There are also a heck of a lot of stimulating people to talk with one on one. This year’s meeting had the added bonus of being held in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., which has always been a favorite place of mine with its history, museums and fantastic seafood around every corner. More than 3500 attendees descended on the city, so it would seem many people agree with me.

Being a nerd engineer, I always try to schedule my days from start to finish. However, that seldom works for me at the PES meeting, because there are too many opportunities that occur unexpectedly. I seek to be flexible because a breakfast table has a way of turning into an astonishing panel session in the blink of an eye. A coffee shop can become an impromptu working group meeting in a flash. You never know when something unpredicted will materialize right in front of you, so it pays to be adaptable.

This happened one afternoon as I was cutting across the hotel lobby. I ran into an old friend and we stopped to chat. Then the “PES phenomena” took over. As we talked, more friends stopped by. In a few minutes, our group had grown to include a couple of consulting engineers, several utility engineers, an engineer from a major equipment supplier and a regulatory group representative. Anyone witnessing the gathering probably thought it was a flash mob, but it was simply friends stopping to talk. The discussion jumped from topic to topic, getting more thought-provoking with every minute. When our discussion moved to the conference’s opening session, I knew I was going to miss my next meeting.

The session’s speakers focused on the challenges facing the electric utility industry brought about by technology. Surprisingly, with the breadth of that topic, there were two subjects our group was stuck on: first was that technology is getting smarter, and second was a statement from one of the speakers about needing smarter engineers for this smarter grid.

Everyone agreed technology is certainly advancing. The issue that touched a nerve was the need for smarter engineers. The general consensus was that we have plenty of smart engineers doing very well integrating the latest technology into the grid, which led to a spirited dialogue. We certainly need engineers who stay current with the technology, but saying we need smarter engineers is somewhat insulting to the hard working folks in our industry. The group thought we needed smarter leadership to take full advantage of the technology our engineers are working with.

There was no argument that today’s grid is being operated much differently than it was five years ago. Take bidirectional power flow as an example. Distributed energy resources (DER) was only a concept in the late 20th century, but advancements in DER technology altered all of that.

It didn’t take long for someone to bring up the reference to the Utility Internet of Things (UIoT) mentioned by another speaker. UIoT technology takes the IoT concept and focuses it on the electric utility’s equipment, but connected via the Internet. Using the Internet for the communications component produced some interesting cybersecurity comments, but most agreed it wasn’t that farfetched. After all, IoT has been sold to everyone on convenience, which, in this case, equates to being more cost-effective (that is, better asset management).

One engineer pointed out that GE introduced its remote operations center for its wind turbines several years ago. Worldwide, wind turbines have sensors throughout their assemblies monitoring how the turbine is working. These sensors are sending gigabytes of date in real time to the remote operations cente over secure communications systems. Sophisticated software turns the data into useful information that identifies anomalies, which can be used to improve a turbine’s reliability before failure. GE is using similar dynamic/diagnostic monitoring for solar assets and steam turbines.

It was one of those aha moments for our group. UIoT technology isn’t all that new, it’s a variation of what we have been doing for years but with an Internet twist. We added sensors to equipment, developed diagnostics and began dynamically monitoring systems a long time ago. The new wrinkle is suggesting the use of the Internet for the connectivity portion of it.

As we broke up and moved off to other conference activities, I had a new perspective for what we had discussed. Technology is shaking up the industry, and UIoT may well be the path to a smarter grid. What is apparent is the fact that we need digital utilities taking advantage of state-of-the-art technology to meet the demands of the changing marketplace. One thing is certain: this transition is going to take place and it will happen in a fraction of the time of previous evolutions — if the decision makers will profit from their smarter engineers.

Gene Wolf

- Gene Wolf, Technical Writer


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