Once Upon a Time: What Would the Power Grid Look Like Without Computers?

When I was pursuing my Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering (EE), we had to choose a career in either Power Engineering or Computers. Though I chose the Computers track, Drexel University required EEs to take courses in both areas.

Power Engineering was already a well-established field in the developed world; power grids were built throughout the first half of the 20 th century. The science and art of power grids were both well refined, supported by annual improvements as one can expect.

Drexel University and GE Re-Entry Division

 The Power Engineering lab at Drexel (which originally opened in 1891 in Philadelphia) was in the basement of the campus’ Main Building on Chestnut Street. Right across that street was General Electric’s Re-Entry Division, where engineering methods for rockets re-entering the atmosphere were developed for both the space program and for the military. This process of designing and managing successful re-entries became heavily reliant on computers. So, as an undergrad, we had Power Engineering labs with generators making kilo-amps and designs using micro-amps in the digital circuit labs. For example, my Power Engineering curriculum included the mechanical engineering analysis of how strong to make the wall brackets which held the two “wires” that left a power plant, since the magnetic force at huge currents would rip these conductors out of walls if they were under-engineered. This set up the “either-or” fork in the road: Either design for smaller and lower current or design for massive electrical issues.

Computers and the power grid

Boy have things changed. While it is true that there are massive differences in forces in some case, the assumed divergence is not what happened. Quite the opposite: Computers supplemented and then greatly enhanced the power grid. In some instances, these enhancements were only possible with computing technologies. But early computers were power hogs and heat generators. The explosion of computers, both back then and today, would have never been possible without reliable, predictable, and cheap sources of electricity and air conditioning. Who would have guessed in 1946 when the first computer (ENIAC) came on line that electricity would have such a direct influence on both the astronomical rise of computer innovation and on the framework of modern electricity generation, transmission and distribution? That such a tight co-dependency would exist between electricity and computers; that there would be a time when one could not survive without the other as we are witnessing today.

DistribuTECH Utilities Tradeshow Conference & Exhibition

Just consider the agenda for this year’s DistribuTECH conference. Most of the technologies and applications that will be discussed would have been impossible to imagine back then, as future tech trends are hard to predict even a decade or two out. However, millennials might find it impossible to envision a power grid that wasn’t powered by, well, computers.

Every one of the Summit Tracks planned for DistribuTECH 2019 is going to talk about a business action or grid system that relies on computers – and mobile computers specifically. Nothing that will be displayed or discussed this year would be feasible without computers (and often, mobile computers). All of these utility systems have to work in harmony and that requires constant data aggregation from the plant to the last mile. In other words, utilities require rugged tablets, handhelds, and similar mobile computing devices to serve as both data collectors and knowledge transfer devices at the edge. These devices are the key to facilitating meaningful change and significant performance gains in the following areas:

  • Asset management track.

    Description includes: "... risk assessment, conditioned-based maintenance, and T&D asset analytics".

    Most of the assets that Utilities have are out in the field, so it is no surprise that many of the sessions talk about the best ways to use mobile computers. One example: since most assets are georeferenced, there are sessions on GIS, which requires a mobile computer in hand.

  • Customer strategies & technologies track.

    The description includes: "... developing technology roadmaps and leveraging smart grid investments to not only enable enhanced customer engagement, but to improve infrastructure efficiency."

    Many of the sessions directly address how to engage and satisfy residential and commercial customers. Your frontline people will be your Utility’s face, and they’ll be equipped with mobile devices such as tablets, handhelds and scanners, to perform “in-depth analysis of end-use customer smart grid technologies, services and solutions.”

  • Data analytics track.

    The sessions in this track show the value of the enterprise data so that everyone, including the field worker at the limits of the grid, will have the right data for decision-making.

    As the description of the track notes: “It covers how utilities are moving beyond single application “business silos” to support business intelligence on an enterprise-wide basis. These solutions are challenging as they must address data quality, consistency, and accessibility so that data is suitable for holistic decision-making.” Data quality and consistency require utility workers to have tools that can accurately capture information in real-time from the plant or field. Manual inputs don’t support either, thus the importance of field-resilient mobile devices with built-in RFID and barcode scanners, hi-res cameras, glove/wet/pen touch capabilities and, in some cases, even keyboards. Workers must be able to input and access data without restriction or delay.

  • Defending the grid track.

    This deals with more than physical threats, it includes cyber-attacks. The grid is vulnerable to these attacks because of the extensive and necessary use of sensing and controlling computing resources, and of course the defense will be based in computer science.

    Sessions include everything from the Operations Center to the edge of the grid. Considering mobile devices are a key source of data and, in some cases, an access point to grid operations, they play a key role in physical and data security measures, and the mobile devices have built-in security measures too.

  • DER management and control track.

    DER (Distributed Energy Resources) is much larger than a few decades ago. Back then, a few large industrial sites and hospitals had their own power plants, but only for their own use. Today, many thousands of small plants and solar installations are selling power back to the utilities.

    One of the sessions talks directly about the field aspect: “Deployment Lessons Along the DER Journey”.

  • Disruptive, emerging and innovative technologies track.

    The innovative technologies tracks include:

    • The Customer Pull for Decentralized Generation and the PV Mandate: Reallocating the Responsibility for and Costs of Meeting Energy Needs
    • How Virtual Assistants and IoT are Enabling the Smart Home of the Future
    • The Impact of IoT and Blockchain on Current and Future Energy Delivery Models

    No wonder a large router and access point provider is the sponsor. Enabling wireless computing and real-time data is their “brand”.

  • Distribution automation track.

    The description includes: "... requires the integration and enhancement of various technologies, including smart switching and protective devices, smart sensors, intelligent controls, telecommunication protocols, devices and infrastructure, along with analytical and simulation software, to facilitate real-time decisions"

    It will look at collaboration software that gives everyone from system operators to dispatchers, field crews to managers, and planning engineers to reliability analysts the same, real-time information about network grid performance. But remember, software and hardware capabilities are tightly connected. To reap the full benefits of a software solution, you must find a mobile computing “vehicle” with the right speed, connectivity and tools to allow full utilization of that software.

  • Energy storage track.

    Energy storage is quickly becoming the solution to many grid issues, from storing energy from cheapest generation times to demand peaks, and by quickly delivering power when a DER element suddenly stops, among others. Why is this important?

    Take a look at this graph from the 21st Century Power Partnership:

    The power grid must match generation with load (demand) – exactly. Before renewable energy, generating capability was managed and load was somewhat predictable. For example, utilities knew that as people returned home from work and school in the early evening, demand would rise quickly. The operators could anticipate the demand rise and start bringing additional generating facilities on-line to meet the demand.

    power grid must match generation with load (demand)

    The graph shows the addition of wind power (green) to the power generation mix. The problem is that when wind stops suddenly, the grid senses it the same as a sudden jump in demand. The available generating capacity drops below the demand – and wind is known to start and stop unpredictably.

    Since power providers are unable to bring additional generating capacity online immediately, they must instead bring stored energy online. But this process requires computers and networked devices that can facilitate this process with the extreme speed and accuracy required to complete this action without causing a network-damaging glitch.

  • Enterprise grid management track.

    Another subject that has existed since the advent of the Electrical Power Grid, but today involves "outage and distribution management, storm response and damage assessment, centralized distribution and transmission operation and distributed energy impacts to grid management."

    One aspect of grid management is outage assessment and repair, and at least one of the sessions will recount experience with recent natural disasters. Operations which now rely heavily on rugged tablet-based solutions.

  • Internet of things & smart cities track.

    Another fascinating track, with every item addressing how Utilities have the key role enabling new Smart Cities and all that it entails.

    “The sessions in this track will look at some of the technologies and trends that will allow utilities to live in the interconnected world of smart cities that is being created through IoT and GoT.” (Internet of Things and Grid of Things)

  • Reliability, resiliency and response track.

    Description includes: "Cyberattacks and hacks, aging infrastructure and disastrous weather events make it harder than ever for energy transmission and distribution (T&D) companies to keep power flowing."

    One interesting session is “An Augmented Reality Storm Damage Assessment App Proof-of-concept Results.” Zebra’s team has addressed augmented reality in the field for Utilities in blogs and in this webinar: Rugged Mobility is Getting a Reboot.

The takeaway? Power systems electrical engineering and computer science electrical engineering have effectively merged as teams of developers have delivered reliable and conditioned power. It hasn’t been an either-or, it is a “both.”

Get Your Mobile (Data) Download Now

All successful enterprises are the sum of the skills of their workforce. Utilities as an enterprise are far more distributed than most companies; after all the “end” of the grid is at every business, traffic light, home, and device. So, people are involved with thousands of miles of utility distribution. Miles of power lines, heavy generating equipment, distribution lines, step-down transformers. Every connection to every building and the ubiquitous Grid of Things, which then talks back – with information and generated power. The people who build, maintain, repair and interact with everything that is the grid need full information, real-time updates, and GIS capabilities. In short, they need rugged, outdoor-rated handhelds and tablets, that are immune to frequent hazard exposures, wirelessly connected and integrated with business analytics.

This is why Zebra has taken care for the last 50 years to specifically design its tablet, handheld, scanner and data analytics portfolios to serve the needs of these hands-on information workers. They understand the tight integration needed between workers and systems located at both the core and edge. They know the demands of running a modern power grid and have developed mobile computing platforms that facilitate efficient operations. Most importantly, they are working closely with utilities to define the bigger-picture, data-driven technology frameworks that will help the industry achieve the vision(s) we’ll hear about at DistribuTECH 2019. Regardless of predictions about future trends, Zebra will make sure you are always prepared for changing grid dynamics and growing operational demands. Visit Zebra at booth #11535 to see how the company’s solutions align with your current mobility needs.

Learn More about DistribuTECH 2019 Tradeshow

Blog Author
: Bob Ashenbrenner
President of Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC.