Utility engineers can be a nerdy lot but, when they get together over a few beers or coffee, plenty of amusing stories get told. Some are about researchers who came up with some amazing concepts (amazing for that time) within a utility culture that once discouraged innovation.

Rick Bush's thoughtful article in the December issue of Transmission & Distribution World magazine, “Smart Enough to Play Dumb,” reminded me of some of the precursors to what we now call the smart grid. In the 1980s, I led a project team to develop what we called a “smart substation.” The idea was to somehow collect real-time customer usage information, local electric load data, outage notification, transformer temperatures, weather data and anything else that we could get our hands on. We planned to bring all the data back to a local distribution substation. There we would have a mini-computer (huge compared to today's desktop) and custom software that could somehow optimize operations, reduce outage times and otherwise accomplish most of a distribution engineer's dreams.

It wasn't that we were actually going to control anything — we were going to run computer simulations to see if a different approach could provide a better operating paradigm. We didn't have distributed generation to deal with or many customer choice issues, as we do now. We just wanted to beat the legacy system into behaving at its best. We knew we would never get anything accomplished if we waited for all the details to get planned out — we figured just generally “heading West” and making progress was the best way to proceed. We also could continue to learn from others because our project wasn't unique. Researchers around the country, some funded by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), were doing the same and we stayed in touch with their progress.

There wasn't a lot of off-the-shelf equipment available to collect real-time operating data that could be digitized and transmitted in the harsh substation environment. And other than the phone line, we had little in the means of communication ability to get all the data back to the substation. So we worked with several universities to develop special sensors, partnered with several start-up wireless communication companies and did the best we could.

We even had a small mini-mainframe computer that we hauled around in a pick-up truck to various substations in California's Central Valley. During one hot summer in Fresno I bought some household fans to cool the mainframe. I used my personal credit card and turned in the receipts for reimbursement — two mistakes I would regret.

Over several years we accomplished many of our goals. But at some point we realized that even if we had all possible data, perfectly working algorithms and high-bandwidth communications, we still wouldn't have much impact on customer-perceived service value. The problem was that we needed better data connections — not only between customers and neighboring distribution substations, but also with the higher voltage transmission system and, if we wanted to do it right, with central generation and system operators.

In those days, that wasn't possible. We were a small research SWAT team with little or no pull with the company's conservative operating departments. We were even a bit of a threat to some in the extremely risk-averse company and industry cultures. So, although our substation project was certainly above average in “smartness,” it just couldn't do much to affect grid operations. So, we relabeled it as a “well-informed” substation, hauled our mini-computer back to headquarters, wrote a final report, and moved on to other challenges.

How things have changed with time. The Smart Grid concept has emerged with the goals we had 30 years ago, plus so much more. And with $3.4 billion in federal stimulus funding the research can be done in style. The Smart Grid has many cloudy definitions, but most align with the definition provided by the Department of Energy (DOE): It consists of digital technology to improve the reliability, security and efficiency of the electric system, from large generation through the delivery systems to electricity consumers and a growing number of distributed-generation and storage resources.

Let's hope the DOE and the consortium of vendors competing for technology niches keep their eye on the goal, and not just a piece of the funding pie or the bells and whistles of technology. Otherwise, customers won't see any difference, except perhaps a tax increase and a bigger electric bill.

By the way… I never got reimbursed for those fans I bought to cool the mini-computer during that hot summer in Fresno. I violated Standard Practice by using my credit card rather than a requisition form.

Paul Mauldin earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of California-Berkeley and is a registered professional engineer who has worked in the energy industry for more than 25 years. He is editor of Penton's www.intelligentenergyportal.com, which provides quick and thorough access to latest news and articles related to energy production, distribution and end use.