One hundred years ago, in the autumn of 1911, the Solvay Conference (the first world physics conference) convened at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels, Belgium. Notable guests included Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie, theoretical physicist and engineer Henri PoincarÃ©, and young physicist Albert Einstein. It was not by complete coincidence that a century later, in December 2010, the Hotel Metropole was again chosen for a historic gathering of men and women that have dedicated their lives to science, engineering and technology. The IEEE Smart Grid World Forum (SGWF), which I had the pleasure of experiencing first hand, was a congregation of hundreds of professionals and students (about half of whom were IEEE members) from Belgium, Germany, the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and numerous other nations. Just as it was one hundred years ago, the prospect of revolutionizing the grid is again a hot topic and the SGWF drew such interest that the historic Hotel Metropole’s gathering capacity was pushed to a maximum.
The smart grid is an issue on which IEEE-USA works actively and intently. IEEE-USA’s National Energy Policy Recommendations explain that adding intelligence ” sensors, communications and computers ” to our electric grid can substantially improve its efficiency and reliability through increased situational awareness, reduced outage propagation, and improved response to disturbances and disruptions. The SGWF focused on many of these issues, including transmission, distribution, generation, communications and information technology, consumer side changes, and the development of smart cities.
The SGWF attracted 27 participants from the United States, including some individuals who helped create the joint IEEE-USA and IEEE Power Engineering Society video “A Smart Grid for Intelligent Energy Use.” But international conferences often present a different view of smart grid than one would acquire from a U.S. conference. I talked with a few U.S.-based SGWF participants, seeking their reaction to the event. John D. McDonald, director of Technical Strategy & Policy Development at GE Digital Energy, articulated on why geography matters when hosting a technology conference. According to McDonald, “Conferences outside the United States teach us regional differences regarding technology, industry standards, policy, and the value propositions or business cases for the technology. We may start in the United States with developing solutions — for example, a new level of technology builds upon devices and systems with innovative hardware and software to meet electric utility needs — but then we need to regionalize the solutions, depending on the differences in each region, regarding the four factors of technology, industry standards, policy and the value propositions.” McDonald as well as all other attendees recognized the importance of collaborating among nations, and the SGWF succeeded greatly at bringing together the international community.
At the conference dinner, I had the pleasure of sitting with Alex Gelman, U.S.-based IEEE member, chief technology officer at the NETovations Group and chief information officer of the IEEE Communications Society. When asked about his interest in international conferences, Gelman admitted that a significant level of international participation is a factor in his decision to attend any conference, and that he prefers international events. Similarly, the main reason Mary Ward-Callan, managing director of IEEE Technical Activities, attended was because SGWF was held overseas. She was seeking a more worldwide perspective on smart grid.
A primary reason that collaboration is so important among engineers and scientists from numerous nations is that depending on what aspect of smart grid is at the center of conversation, countries face similar or vastly different challenges with smart grid development — each region can learn a great deal from others. McDonald pointed out that the real benefit of international outreach is that “through collaboration among the U.S. and EU groups we can share best practices and establish a holistic smart grid approach for the U.S. and EU combined.” Ward-Callan echoed this point. “Managing technology today requires a worldwide perspective,” she said.
William R. Tonti, director of future directions at IEEE Technical Activities also agreed that international cooperation and education is essential and expressed that his favorite parts of the conference were the many discussions that centered on what various countries and states are working on.
When asked about his experiences at the SGWF, James Prendergast, IEEE executive director and CEO voiced that “smart grid is a global issue, and having the meeting in Brussels, with key stakeholders, sends a strong message.”
I agree that SGWF conveyed a number of strong messages, primarily that smart grid development is finally kicking into high gear, and the United States and EU have positioned themselves as global leaders. More importantly, however, is the idea that although the United States and EU may face some vastly different barriers to smart grid deployment, collaboration among the two regions is essential to propel development forward in either region. The SGWF stands as an extremely successful example of such collaboration.
Almost all IEEE societies, regions and chapters are working to make the smart grid a reality, and smart grid is a policy priority of IEEE-USA. IEEE-USA’s National Energy Policy Recommendations outlines the organization’s recommendations for smart grid development, including fully funding legislation of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007; supporting development of smart grid standards; cross-organization cooperation to resolve issues of ratepayer involvement; and increasing R&D funding. IEEE-USA also supports the expansion of the transmission system and the development of large-scale electricity storage systems.
Join me in the next edition of IEEE-USA in ACTION for a continued discussion on the SGWF.
Patrick E. Meyer is a 2011 IEEE-USA Congressional Fellow.