Duke Gets The Jump On Smart Grid

on August 10, 2011 at 10:00 AM

A sprawling five-state utility in the Southeast United States and founded in 1900, Duke Energy is perhaps more familiar than most power companies with the stagnant nature of the electrical transmission grid.

In its August 8 White Paper, titled “Developing the communications platform to enable a more intelligent electric grid,” Duke Energy’s Manager of Technology Development David Masters outlines the company’s smart grid vision and how it hopes to see the electric grid modernized, and transformed, in the coming decades.

Duke has already deployed a smart grid system of about 600,000 meters in a region of Ohio it is now managing, including roughly 230,000 smart electric meters, 165,250 smart gas meters and 43,759 communication nodes along the wires. Duke has also deployed pilot programs in its local region of the Carolinas, with about 16,000 meters of smart grid in North Carolina and about 2,000 in South Carolina.

“We started early on,” Masters said, so that Duke could spend the requisite time testing the various technologies for the electric grid, many of which have already been in use for years in other sectors such as wireless and digital communication. He said he hopes a national smart grid, one that enables greater incorporation of renewables and electric vehicles and that deploys “millions of devices on the power grid and in the home” is not too far in the future.

He told Breaking Energy that perhaps the greatest challenge the company faces is bringing regulators on board who are unfamiliar with the rapidly changing needs of the electric power grid.

“Because a lot of the technology that’s used in [smart grid] is new technology, it doesn’t necessarily meet the norms of how regulated utility has worked over the years,” Masters said.

For more coverage of the technology challenges for smart grid implementation, see: Static On The Line, Fragmented US Smart Grid Efforts.

He believes that regulators need further education about the new systems so that they can facilitate advancements. He also said he wants to see the government encourage larger investments in smart grid R&D to support further innovation.

Particularly frustrating for Duke Energy, which operates in five different states, is that each state and municipality has its own regulatory environment the company must navigate to support smart grids. Utilities in Europe, Masters said, typically manage much larger regions with more uniform laws, a contrast that underlines the challenge in making the US grid particularly difficult to enhance digitally.

“It’s a very monumental task and what we’ve typically seen is that it’s very hard to get people to understand it because its very broad,” Masters said. “It touches on all aspects of delivering electricity.”

The technical details of using wireless communications nodes throughout the electric grid to enhance reliability and efficiency of the system is extremely complex. An expert in technology, Masters lays out the full technical details in the white paper, comparing it to a “a virtual ‘handshake’ between Duke Energy and our customers.”

Masters said the future of smart grid may bring technologies “we haven’t even dreamed of yet.” For now, the challenge is to understand how to use the technology already present.

Access the full text of the white paper here.

Editor’s Note: This photo from the Seattle Municipal Archives was originally posted here on Flickr.