As utilities and suppliers begin the modernization of the electric grid in the United States into the “Smart Grid”, there seem to be two schools of thought circulating across the country. There are those looking forward to the change and those dreading the consequences of the change. Those looking forward to the change are anticipating a new paradigm of cheaper, more reliable, cleaner and greener power delivery from non-hydrocarbon sources. Those fearing the change worry about more rather than fewer blackouts, costs that will increase, and an electric grid made more environmentally dependent on coal and vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
As the U.S. begins to reinvigorate the “greatest machine ever built,” the course will be decided by how well we implement the changes, not by how high tech they are. Lean implementation is only as successful as its methodologies. If the U.S. government invests stimulus money into the electric grid and other infrastructures without an Integrated Master Plan, then we can expect a mess. The Smart Grid needs to be executed with critical paths and performance metrics to judge progress and redirect failing efforts into more successful paths. So far, the signs from DOE have been good, as can be detected from the following Lean implementation traits: 1. Cyber-Security: the Smart Grid is being built not only on standards gathered and integrated by NIST, but also on military technologies that have proved invulnerable against real attacks by foreign countries and terrorists, so far. And by the way, the Smart Grid is being tested daily by our National Security Agency; 2. Interoperability: hardware and software that is proven valuable for efficiency improvements in the Smart Grid is being required to be plug-and play, at least in our New York City implementation. Think of the thousands of Apps built to standards like those for the Apple iPhone; and 3. Open Software: any application adding value to the Smart Grid is being required to communicate with relevant Apps from other manufacturers. In addition, there is visibility within the Smart Grid for Apps to see and use the vast volume of new data that is being exchanged both ways between utilities and customers. These new technologies overwhelm the worries about where the electricity is being generated, whether from coal or nuclear or green sources.
In the Smart Grid future, any electricity source will be better than the hydrocarbon present. With Peak Oil fast approaching, and Peak Oil Consumption probably already upon us, this coming transition from the present hydrocarbon economy to a future electric economy will be powered, at least in large urban cities, by this transition to the Lean Electric Smart Grid.
Roger Anderson is with the Columbia Center for Computational Learning Systems, SEAS