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Smart Electricity

America’s electric utility grid is beginning to change.

The complex and far-reaching network of power lines, poles, towers, substations, and transformers, constantly being repaired and maintained, is exceptionally reliable. Yet from the huge generating stations to the simple 120-volt switch that controls the kitchen lights, almost everything about the way electricity gets to you is based on mechanical models developed a century ago.

Early electrical engineers designed the system to provide current for incandescent light bulbs and simple motors. They never envisioned instant-on TVs, personal computers, heart monitors, factory robots, or “smart” buildings with remote sensors to respond to heating and cooling needs. Finding the best match between the electric power needs of 21st-century customers and the way electricity reaches those end users is a difficult job.

At the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), headquartered in Palo Alto, California, engineer Richard Lordan spends his workdays considering just such issues.

“Older kinds of equipment, such as incandescent lights and motors, are what we engineers call ‘robust,’” Lordan explains. “That means they can tolerate small fluctuations in voltage and occasional interruptions to the power flow fairly easily. But that same level of power quality and reliability can create problems for today’s microprocessor-based equipment, such as computers and variable-speed motors. What we’re finding today as a society is that while electricity quality and reliability is being maintained at a high level, the requirements of the end users are changing—and we as an industry need to make some changes, too.”

EPRI is a non-profit, collaborative science and technology development center and “think tank” for the electricity industry worldwide.

Lordan says, “There are two choices. We as a nation can change the American electric utility system so that it is even more reliable, consistently delivering power at certain levels, or the end users can change their equipment so it is less sensitive to tiny fluctuations in power levels or reliability.” EPRI’s recently released Electricity Technology Roadmap, a 47-page report, foresees a mixture of both approaches.

Modernizing the electricity infrastructure includes making it “smarter.” Such a system includes automation, using remote sensors and devices that continually monitor the system, anticipate problems, and in the event of a problem, heal itself without outside mechanical intervention. Many electric co-ops are already including such new, highly sensitive digital technologies throughout their systems, working out the details through demonstration projects.

End users, especially businesses that rely on sophisticated computers, are working out their own solutions through the installation of such things as Uninterrupted Power Supplies that detect breaks in the flow of electricity and seamlessly switch to either generators or batteries.

Other practical solutions to the need for higher reliability in this digital age include the clustering of new businesses in parks with specialized utility systems. These might include underground electric service less susceptible to weather conditions, extra transformers, or mini-generating stations.

One new device being installed on feeder lines is the size of a large shoebox. Similar to old-style mechanical circuit breakers found in homes, this new gadget features a microprocessor—sort of a mini-computer—capable of detecting an overcurrent situation, reacting to it to isolate the problem, then evaluating the best way to protect the rest of the electric system from an interruption or damage.

East Kentucky Power Cooperative engineer Ron Mollenkopf says, “This new microprocessor is sort of like a ‘black box’ in that it records events in real time and can either transmit information to the central station in real time or save it for later use.”

To find out more about EPRI’s predictions for the future of America’s electricity system, go to their Web site at
and click on the “Electricity Technology Roadmap” section.


The move toward digital—and digital-friendly—electric utility service is progressing on three fronts.

* Upgrading the current infrastructure

* Adding new parts using the latest technology

*More electric utilities working with their customers to design power supplies that more closely fit their needs

Next Month: Utility policymakers in Washington

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