This year at APEC I moderated a rap session on dealing with the Smart Grid. It had a standing-room-only crowd, and demonstrated how much interest exists on both the technical and political issues involved. I asked the panelists from the session to give us a comment (some gave much more) on their take on the issues of the smart grid and its developing technology.

Mike Ballard microchip  Mike Ballard, Manager, Home Appliance Solutions Group, Microchip Technology 


"I would say the greatest challenge is keeping up with the ever changing and evolving communication protocols. The market is so fragmented currently that I think it will be years before be have a small number of stable communication protocols. In the meantime, design engineers will need to custom design many applications for various communication standards."



Zaki Moussaoui   Dr. Zaki Moussaoui, Sr. Applications Manager, Intersil

The main challenge to the power electronic engineering community regarding the smart grid is making sure that the Power Companies achieve their goals of reducing cost, improving reliability, etc. Our traditional customers (design and manufacturers of televisions, cars, washing machines, etc...) can also see the benefits of the smart grid and thus will be motivated to become partners. We need to work with the washing machine maker to give us the ability to interface with their product, the pluggable electric vehicle (EV) maker to make their charger bidirectional, the network controller to shape the load as needed, etc.

Power electronic engineers will have to become the middle man between all these disciplines to ensure that both sides are benefitting from this new technology.

For example, let's take the EV battery charger for home use. From the power companies' point of view, they want to be able to take energy from the battery during the peak grid use and they only want the battery to take charge during the low grid use. For the car manufacturer this translates to a more complex charger. It will cost more, it will decrease the life span of the battery, and might reduce the time between charge. For the end user, they want to make sure their car is charged, that they are getting paid for the energy they send to the gird, and that they only have to worry about a simple comprehensive bill at the end of the month. The power electronic engineering community has to come up with solutions that alleviate the concerns of the car maker, help the utility companies achieve their goals, and create consumer demand.

John Jovalusky  qspeedJohn Jovalusky, Technical Marketing Manager, Qspeed Semiconductor

Given the recent fiasco of Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PGE) botched handling of customer complaints about the “smart” electricity meters that it has been installing for its residential customers, the biggest challenge that the Smart Grid faces–at least initially–will be getting the public to want it. If we don’t make the advantages of an upgraded electric power distribution system clear to the consumer, we may find ourselves in a similar situation to the Ford Motor Company, as it tried to sell the Edsel! Regardless of what is responsible for the discrepancies in electric bills–from before the smart meters were installed to afterwards–the onus is on PGE to make their customers happy; which they have not done, so far. If service providers continue with this kind of attitude, adoption of a smart grid will be resisted, and electricity suppliers may find many of their customers looking for any form of alternative energy that will allow them to go “off-grid,” just to isolate themselves from a tyrannical and unresponsive utility company.

Realistically, a well-implemented smart grid will benefit everyone; providers and customers alike. However, showing your customers “what is in it for them” is a first and crucial step to making the deployment of any new service a success. Utilities need to find a champion, a “Consumer’s Advocate” for the smart grid. They need to create a spokesperson who will inform everyone why we should want an improved electricity distribution infrastructure. Additionally, they also need a mediator to smooth out the inevitable bumps-in-the-road that will occur during the early stages of deployment. Until these two tasks are done properly, you might as well put the smart grid on hold because it will be a dumb idea, if the public doesn’t want it. At this point in U.S. history, we can’t afford to have the smart grid become another expensive, government sponsored project that nobody wants and everybody hates. Once the public has been reasonably convinced that they really do need an improved power distribution system, it will be a whole lot easier for the engineering community to discern what products need to be designed to successfully implement a smart grid. If you do not put first-things-first, you often set yourself up for failure; or–at the least–make things a lot harder than they need to be. Good engineering is hard enough, as it is. Let’s not make the realization of a valid, beneficial smart grid harder than it needs to be. 

Paul L. Schimel, PEPaul L. Schimel, PE, Senior Applications Engineer, International Rectifier

The statistics vary, but all seem to be in agreement that nearly 30 to 40% of the present load base on the grid is caused by induction motors. They appear in furnaces, condensers, less expensive clothes washing machines and clothes dryers, pumps, fans, blowers, draft inducers, etc. That seems odd to me. Most off the shelf induction motors don’t have an efficiency beyond 66%. We then band-aid this in applications where variable transfer rates are required with a voltage sourced inverter to vary the frequency of the applied waveform. When the induction machine is operated outside of it’s shamelessly dogmatic designed frequency range, it’s efficiency is less than the 66% peak. Not to mention the power factor of the machine is terrible, typically around 0.7 lagging.

Let’s not congratulate ourselves for this and blitz wildly toward a grandiose communications solution to make our grid smart when our loads are plumb stupid. We need to go back to the drawing board and take advantage of the newer motor technologies (sorry Tesla!). We have the technology and the fundamental knowledge to build machines that truly do have high efficiencies and broad speed ranges, it just seems that the industry is stuck in a rut. We keep designing more and more induction machines for all the wrong applications. All of the induction motor designers benchmark other induction motors and make small improvements in the stack, the shorting bars, the slots in the stator, etc….all the while ignoring the obvious questions: What is the application?

Why not design the right machine for a given application? Why not take advantage of far superior motor technologies including PM brushless machines and high pole count machines for low-speed high torque applications?