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U.S. Grid Gets Less Reliable: Page 6

To Leverage Smart Grid, U.S. Federal Policy Must Mature Quickly

Many experts think that applying technology to manage the grid is the clearest way out. The “smart grid” could significantly reduce the amount of power that needs to be generated to get the same amount of power to consumers. Granular and accurate control of the grid would also make big rolling outages far less likely -- but only if all the technology is designed to communicate in one unified control scheme.

One of the biggest benefits touted for smart grid is increased ability for grid operators to add variable renewables, especially wind, to their systems. Experts (including NERC) agree that the transmission capacity to support the currently-mandated renewables buildout over the next decade is just not there, so the Smart Grid could play a major role in making renewable buildout possible.

Robin Lunt of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) said state regulators have been hoping smart grids would help achieve renewable portfolio standards and clean power to meet EPA standards. (

Yet, the pending spate of EPA rules tightening sulfur, nitrogen, mercury and particulate emissions, with deadlines hitting coal plants in the next four years, will force investment dollars into abatement projects and away from longer-term efforts like the smart grid.

"The EPA bubbles to the top," said Jon Hawkins of Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM). "We have to invest hundreds of millions at our coal plant. That elbows out smart grid funding."

The obvious answer is to get EPA, Energy and technology companies together so the right decisions get made. You would have to be very hopeful to expect that this will happen quickly.

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

It is heartening to see that the fundamental problems that must be addressed are recognized by the regulators at the U.S. and Canada federal levels. It is even better to say that direct action has been taken, and will continue to be, in the right direction. However, the sheer complexity of the political change that must take place in order to have a chance at getting this right is daunting.

Fixing enough jurisdictional problems to start implementing a long-term plan will not happen next week or next year. This reminds us that it is always good to hope for the best while planning for the worst. And in this case, any model for predicting the worst case should assume continued declines in reliability for the next few years.


1. “U.S. Electrical Grid Gets Less Reliable”, by S. Massoud Amin / January 2011. IEEE Spectrum is the flagship publication of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), explores the development, applications and implications of new technologies. (

2. As of June 18, 2007, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted NERC the legal authority to enforce reliability standards with all users, owners, and operators of the bulk power system in the United States, and made compliance with those standards mandatory and enforceable. Reliability standards are also mandatory and enforceable in Ontario and New Brunswick, and NERC is seeking to achieve comparable results in the other Canadian provinces. NERC will seek recognition in Mexico once the necessary legislation is adopted.

NERC is a non-government organization which has statutory responsibility to regulate bulk power system users, owners, and operators through the adoption and enforcement of standards for fair, ethical and efficient practices.

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