The Smarter Grid

Oct. 19, 2016
It’s time to get smart about our grid.

You can’t read anything about the T&D industry these days without seeing something about “smart grid.” In fact, I found 38 references to smart grid in the September issue of T&D World alone. The U.S. government even has an entire website dedicated to smart grid (

I’ve often wondered just exactly what the smart grid actually is. The first things that come to mind are smart meters and AMI, followed by SCADA, EMS and OMS. My Internet search for smart grid returned more devices, names and acronyms than I have ever seen.

Rather than defining what the smart grid is, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) defines what it is not: “Devices such as wind turbines, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and solar arrays are not part of the smart grid. Rather, the smart grid encompasses the technology that enables us to integrate, interface with and intelligently control these innovations and others.” That’s a pretty broad anti-definition.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying these efforts are without merit. I am all for implementing the latest and greatest gadgets and features. However, no matter how smart we make the grid, if the physical infrastructure is not capable of supporting these devices and the associated technology, what good is it to begin with? As a civil/structural engineer, I wonder why we don’t put more effort into simply preventing structural failures.

Civil engineers design and build infrastructure: buildings, roads, bridges, railroads, airports, seaports, mass transit, drinking and waste-water systems, dams and levees. And we design energy systems to deliver oil, gas and electricity.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has a division committed to our specific industry. The Electrical Transmission Structures (ETS) of ASCE is chaired by Ron Carrington. His closing column in this supplement covers some of the manuals of practices (MoPs) being developed or updated by ETS. In addition to the documents he mentions, there are many other ASCE MoPs and Standards such as ASCE-10 Design of Latticed Steel Transmission Structures and ASCE-48 Design of Steel Transmission Pole Structures that are used and referenced worldwide. These ASCE MoPs and Standards are written by well-qualified engineers and judiciously approved by industry peers to ensure the adequate performance of our electric infrastructure.

Unfortunately, these ASCE MoPs and Standards are occasionally ignored or even deliberately exempted in our industry. For example, the 2017 National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) will continue to specifically exempt structures less than 60 ft tall from meeting minimum ASCE MoP 74 wind and ice requirements. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials requires streetlights and signs be designed for at least these minimum wind speeds, if not higher. Isn’t it embarrassing for our industry that streetlights are designed to be stronger than the structures actually delivering the electricity to them?

Every four years, ASCE’s Committee on America’s Infrastructure issues a report card for America’s infrastructure. We are currently working on the 2017 report card. In 2013, the energy sector received a D+, which was no change from the 2009 grade. While improvements had been made on the transmission side of our infrastructure, the problems on the distribution side kept that grade from being raised. The White House issued a report in 2013 that calls for protecting the electric grid from severe weather, and the DOE is calling for using stronger materials for poles and structures as a hardening strategy. The Edison Electric Institute indicates that 90% of our grid failures are on the distribution side alone.

Apple doesn’t let us upgrade a five-year-old iPhone to the latest iOS 10. Microsoft doesn’t allow us to install Windows 10 on 10-year-old computers. Yet in our industry, we are using modern technology on infrastructure that, in many cases, is more than 50 years old. And the 2017 NESC still hasn’t changed the minimum design loadings required for new structures less than 60-ft tall since 1941.

Olympic athletes know that being competitive involves mental preparation as much as physical. What if they were to ignore the physical training and preparation? Similarly, smart engineers know that we should have a robust physical infrastructure that will accommodate the layering on of smart diagnostic, monitoring and control platforms.

ASCE MoP 74 is more than just modern wind and ice maps, it provides contingencies that make our grid stronger and more resilient. However, economics often restrain engineers from using ASCE loadings and design methods. We are forced to meet bare minimum standards by competitive bidding, commissions and even by our own companies. It is scary how many overhead lines today are being built to bare-minimum NESC requirements only, complete with the 60-ft exemption, Grade C construction and other loopholes.

Wouldn’t it be smarter to use modern engineering-based ASCE loadings and design methods on our entire physical electrical infrastructure?

Otto J. Lynch is vice president of Power Line Systems Inc. He is a registered professional engineer.

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