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Dr. Jeffrey Taft: The Smart Grid as Innovation Platform


Dr. Jeffrey Taft, Chief Smart Grid Architect, Cisco

Dr. Jeffrey Taft, Chief Smart Grid Architect, Cisco

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Cisco Virtual Earth Day

April 20, 2010

Jeffrey Taft, Ph.D., recently joined Cisco in a dual role: as distinguished engineer and chief smart grid architect. Reporting to Laura Ipsen, senior vice president and general manager, Smart Grid, Taft guides the design, development and implementation of smart grid architectures across Cisco's utilities customers, focusing on the integration and convergence of communications networking into the grid.

Dr. Taft is a veteran of the energy and technology sectors, with more than 25 years' experience in his field. He holds a doctorate, a master's degree and a bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering as well as 11 patents.

To coincide with Cisco's Virtual Earth Day, News@Cisco spoke with Dr. Taft about the status of the smart grid, the benefits it brings, what we can expect in the future and more.

News@Cisco: How do you define the smart grid?

Dr. Jeffrey Taft: The smart grid is an evolution of things that have been happening in the electrical utility industry for a while.

This industry is one of the last to come to the digital revolution. Traditionally, electrical utilities have operated in part-automatic/part-manual mode, without a lot of ability to observe what is happening with their own assets. That lack of visibility has been a problem.

Unlike other industries, such as telecom and cable, the utility industry is not able to convert its key assets to be digital in and of themselves. For example, the power transformers can't be digital, transmission lines can't generate XML messages and capacitors can't automatically create event messages.

So these companies have to insert a layer of superstructure on top of the existing grid that provides digital capabilities. That allows them to collect and move data, to distribute control commands and to integrate that with utility processes and systems.

So a smart grid is a power grid that has that digital superstructure attached to it and the capabilities that come with that digital superstructure integrated into its business processes.

Where does Internet Protocol (IP) fit in?

Dr. Jeffrey Taft:  Does the smart grid have to be IP-based? No. And traditionally, it has not been. Should it be? Yes, because we know, from all our experience in other industries, that IP networks are how you build a good communications network.

Utilities are not in the market to buy IP or any other specific technology, per se. They are simply trying to achieve certain business and customer outcomes. But those outcomes are best served when the communications network is IP-based.

It's worth emphasizing, because there is often confusion around this: the communications are not the smart grid; the smart grid uses communication to accomplish what it needs to.

What is your vision for the smart grid?

Dr. Jeffrey Taft: The utilities carry out three big classes of business function: energy delivery, asset management and life cycle asset optimization, and consumer interaction.

Cisco's vision of the smart grid is one in which we use digital technology to facilitate and improve all those classes so that everything is highly automated, adaptable and economically operated.

In the 20th century, most utilities would have told you their job was "to keep the lights on." But today, they are focused much more broadly: on the reliable, economical delivery of high-quality, sustainable energy.

"The smart grid is not just a way for the utility to operate more efficiently, it will be a platform for innovation. Just like the Internet, we'll see a collection of new smart grid apps, services and products – some of which we know about today, some we can't even imagine yet."

— Dr. Jeffrey Taft, Chief Smart Grid Architect, Cisco

Likewise, asset management and life cycle asset optimization is evolving rapidly. Traditionally, because of the lack of visibility into the grid, utilities have had relatively simple approaches to equipment maintenance and monitoring. However, today more sophisticated approaches are possible as real-time data on what's really happening with their assets become available.

The smart grid will deliver a new communication model that accommodates renewable energy and related interactions. Consumers will have choices about how they interact with the utility; and rather than a two-way flow of information, which is how many describe the smart grid, we will in fact have "N-way flow," where N will eventually be a very large number.

Flows of information and power will become much more complicated (for example, among consumers and across wide geographic areas), and utilities will be able to facilitate that.

How close are we to that vision today?

Dr. Jeffrey Taft: We're part way there; utilities have been doing pieces of this for some time.

If you talk to utilities on the transmission side, they'll say our transmission grid is already smart; they're mostly correct. If you talk about the distribution side, they'll say we have a long way to go; that's right, too.

The biggest problem has been the lack of reliable and inexpensive ways to increase the visibility into the utility assets, like the distribution grid. Utilities have been almost blind to what happens between the substation and the home.

Controllability has been another challenge. By that I mean once you know what's going on, you need some automatic controls to make changes.

So part of the smart grid activity is improving the controllability and then using the improved visibility through apps to make useful outcomes occur through all of that core capability.

What are some of the ways the smart grid is going to benefit end users?

Dr. Jeffrey Taft: For consumers, businesses and industry, a fully built-out smart grid provides the opportunity to have more information – and therefore more choices – about how they consume energy. That means being able to optimize the amount of money they spend for energy, optimize the amount of energy that comes from various sources, or produce energy and put it back into the grid.

The benefits to utilities are three-fold: better responsiveness to customers, better operations and what I call "grey to green transformation," which means moving from fossil fuels to renewables.

What do you envision for the smart grid five or 10 years down the road?

Dr. Jeffrey Taft:  We'll see the wide proliferation of smart metering. We'll see much more advanced capability in the distribution grids, because the smart capabilities – that superstructure layer we talked about – will have spread into those as well.

We'll see a collection of new smart grid apps, services and products – some of which we know about today, some we can't even imagine yet. Because people will figure out all kinds of new things to do, as they realize that the smart grid is not just a way for the utility to operate more efficiently, it's also an innovation platform.

That will happen because we're going to build a great platform for people to innovate on. That's an important part of the vision I have of how communications fit with the smart grid: to make that platform work for people.

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