Tesla, Edison, “The Current War,” and What it Has to Do With Getting to Work

October 7, 2019 | 1:48 pm
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

Getting to work on time can be enough of a hassle, but imagine if there wasn’t an agreed standard time, or worse if we didn’t have agreement about which side of the street to drive on. This simple but vital task of getting to work on time would be a mess.  Standardizing time zones was a key step in getting trains to run on schedules.

Today’s technology also relies on standards. “Plug-and-play” might be overused, but every appliance and wall socket are designed to meet agreed standards and offer consumers trouble-free connection for electrical products.

The electric power grid requires standardization and coordinated operation.  Since Tesla’s alternating current won the “current wars” electric grids have required that the supplies be synchronized, and that supply be closely matched with demand.   As hot weather pushes up demand from air conditioning and fans, this can be stressed. If equipment fails, or storms knock out wires, automatic devices kick in to protect against overloads. Standards and predictable coordination are critical at those times. When something isn’t right, the lights will go out.

Many new technologies start here, at a recent standard, the USB connector.

These days, with controllable electric vehicle chargers, sophisticated capabilities in solar panel inverters, and even internet-connected washing machines and water heaters, a “smart grid” is beginning to take shape. The US Department of Energy has been fostering the growth of an “ecosystem of resources and devices to work together in a coordinated manner that is vital to the Nation’s grid modernization efforts.”

Last month 19,000 energy industry professionals and hundreds of companies in the smart energy space gathered in Salt Lake City, Utah to keep up with smart grid technology development and opportunities. In a related announcement, Kevin Lynn, a DOE leader on this effort said interoperability for energy-related devices offers “greater power system operational efficiencies and resilience from the integration of end-user technology advancements in renewable generation, storage, electric vehicle, and buildings controls.”

Among the companies the DOE recognized in Salt Lake City were Ecogy Energy, which finances and manages distributed generation assets for underserved entities including affordable housing, non-profits and municipalities; and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an electric utility-sponsored research and development organization.

The government’s role promoting standards and rules of the road for new supplies of electricity, and competition amongst technologies began with PURPA (the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978), extended with state and federal decisions in the 1990s to separate the wires business from the supply business, and continues with initiatives clarifying grid connection requirements. Every potential new business, and the benefits to consumers and society depend on standardized procedures and communications to ensure fair and open access to the grid.  This was true for large generators using natural gas or wind under PURPA, and now it is true for solar and battery storage as part of the emerging smart grid.

Congress also directed the smoothing of grid modernization by directing NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) to develop the rules of the road “to enable all electric resources, including demand-side resources, to contribute to an efficient, reliable electricity network.” Congress set out the task for development of voluntary uniform interoperability standards for devices and systems. The law required NIST to seek input from state and federal agencies, private trade groups, and any interested parties while remaining technology neutral.

The benefits of up-to-date standards that are independent from proprietary or product-specific limits stem from the growth of both supply and demand.  NIST for also maintains a means for cellphones and mobile devices to protect security of data and communications; nanotechnology; medicine; and even nutrition.

The US is already behind in grid modernization. Tremendous declines in the costs (and growing public support of) renewable generation has not been met with upgrades to make a smart grid capable of integrating these technologies.  A consumer-oriented economic boom has begun in Australia, combining solar with storage and other flexible loads. Utility rules in the US vary across the 50 states and the several thousand electricity providers.

In all countries, the operation of the electric grid is complex. As Americans are adding smart thermostats, electric vehicle chargers…etc. to manage costs and help improve the grid, it is vitally important that open standards allow all providers and users to get the benefits and savings available from a modernized energy system. These include data access and coordination, along with operational protocols to make the devices’ responses predictable and the grid perform better.

We need the advance of smart grid standards if we want these technologies to get to work. The coordination and standardization, like those provided by time zones and lines on the road, make the difference between success and failure of this growing area of the economy.