Connecting buildings to the Smart Grid

Engineers should know the NIST and ASHRAE standards for the Smart Grid, and be aware of the availability of Smart Grid-ready products for commercial buildings.


Electrical power is delivered from power generation plants to our homes and businesses through a nationwide network of electrical distribution equipment including cables, transformers, protective devices, switches, and other equipment. This network is known as the “grid.” Traditionally, electrical utilities have managed this grid manually, which means workers travel to each user site to read meters. When outages occur, central office staff wait for user phone calls to learn where power is out and then send linemen to investigate. During heavy usage periods, staff may add generating capacity, purchase additional power on the spot market, or, most drastically, turn off blocks of users (rotating blackouts).

In an effort to bring the grid into the 21st century, technology is being applied to make a “Smart Grid” capable of automating much of this work through sophisticated communications and automated responses. As noted by the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE), “Much in the way that a ‘smart’ phone these days means a phone with a computer in it, Smart Grid means ‘computerizing’ the electric utility grid. It includes two-way digital communication technology to devices associated with the grid.”

The Smart Grid is not necessarily designed to increase profitability for utilities, but it will have many far-reaching effects. It will increase reliability by automatically bypassing outages to maintain power downstream. It will manage electrical usage and production, enabling use of intermittent but valuable renewable sources and, sometimes, directing power where it is most needed. It will also increase efficiency and cost savings by allowing users to access information and allow them to turn items on or off remotely—even if they are not home. Additionally, new products may enable automatic demand response, allowing utilities to automatically control electrical usage during periods of high demand by remotely controlling lighting, air conditioning, and other equipment.

As with any new technology in the power sector, it must be coordinated with hundreds of utilities and millions of users across the country. Numerous public and private entities have been involved in the development of the Smart Grid, including the DOE, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Science and Technology Council, Federal Smart Grid Task Force, and numerous stakeholders from industry and academia.

This article will present an update on current standards as well as touch on new products that have been specifically designed for use on the Smart Grid that impact building designers.

Developing standards

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a government agency founded in 1901 whose mission is to advance measurement science, standards, and technology. A physical laboratory, NIST has been tasked to lead the effort to develop standards for the Smart Grid.

Since 2007, the agency has been working on the development of a variety of standards including communication technologies (Internet protocols), smart car plug standards, pricing standards, meter output, and a home appliance communication protocol. In fact, NIST is currently working on 20 different Priority Action Plans (PAPs). This is just the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that hundreds of standards will be required to build an effective and efficient Smart Grid

Many of the standards involve communicating information and developing demand response capabilities. Typical standards include Wireless and Power Line Communication for the Smart Grid, Electric Storage Interconnection Guidelines, and Wind Plant Communications.

A NIST standard that directly affects today’s building designers is the electric vehicle plug standards entitled “Common Object Models for Electric Transportation.” This standard includes plug and charging configurations, including allowing charging at different voltages and charge rates in a safe manner. In addition, the standard addresses the ability to control the impact of charging on the grid through price or direct control. Allowing electric vehicles to sell power back to the grid during periods of high demand is addressed. Finally, the standard addresses providing a fair settlement to everyone when the vehicle is charged away from home. Most manufacturers of electrical distribution equipment offer a compliant charging station.

Approved standards

Specifiers of electrical equipment need to make sure that the products they are promoting meet required standards. As Smart Grid technology is in its infancy, there are not a lot of standards available to guide specifiers. 

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 gave the responsibility for adopting NIST recommended standards to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). To date, FERC has not adopted any of the recommended standards, although it has reviewed and commented on several NIST proposals. In addition, the Government Accountability Office has noted that “While EISA gives FERC authority to adopt smart grid standards, it does not provide FERC with specific enforcement authority.” 

So where should specifiers go for guidance, and how do we avoid incompatibility issues associated with a lack of standards? Independent agencies such as ASHRAE, National Electrical Manufacturers Assn. (NEMA), and others have also been developing and promoting Smart Grid standards.

For example, ASHRAE recently teamed up with NEMA to develop ASHRAE/NEMA Standard 201P, Facility Smart Grid Information Model. As noted on ASHRAE’s website, the “proposed standard 201P would define an object oriented information model to enable appliances and control systems in homes, buildings, and industrial facilities to manage electrical loads and generation sources in response to communication with the smart electrical grid and to communicate information about those electrical loads to utility and other electrical service providers.”

The model includes information on lighting, heating, air conditioning, and other electrical loads. It will simplify communication for energy providers by providing a common information path for all building types. On the facility side, it allows products designed for residential use to be used in commercial buildings and vice versa. The model is coordinated with standards developed by NIST.

The Assn. of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) has also started to review standards and make recommendations. While this organization has not formally endorsed any protocols, it has made evaluations and recommendations, indicating that Zigbee, Wi-Fi, and Home Plug Green PHY are “the top three most suitable communication protocols based on the analysis.” AHAM has also recommended various features that appliances should have for interaction of the Smart Grid with consumers.

The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has developed more than 20 Smart Grid related standards covering everything from Control of Small Hydroelectric Plants to Collecting and Managing Transmission Line Inspection and Maintenance Data.

Smart Grid-ready products

There are a number of available Smart Grid-ready products and services that affect building and facility designers. These include direct load control devices, Web portals for automated metering via the Internet, in-home displays, and programmable communicating thermostats. Many of these products are designed to work with the utility companies’ Smart Grid systems that will enable time-of-use rates, critical peak pricing, and other methods that provide significant financial incentives for consumers of electrical power—if they help the utilities match their generation and transmission capacity to their loads.

As early as 2009,, a website dedicated to rapidly developing technologies that enable Smart Grids, awarded Smart Grid Product of the Year Awards to deserving Smart Grid products. Many of the winners of this award are focused on demand response and are a good source for up-and-coming Smart Grid products.

One example of a Smart Grid software product is nlyte 6.0 by nlyte Software, which enables data center managers to optimize the use of power, cooling, and space allocation through intelligent placement of assets. Another winner, iControl Open Home Software Platform by iControl Networks, allows utilities to offer customers a way to monitor, control, and automate their energy usage while at the same time providing a means for controlling peak energy usage. It also allows third-party monitoring services, such as security companies, the opportunity to expand their services by offering remote home management of loads such as HVAC equipment to reduce energy bills. Another new product is the Smart Metering Management Platform by Cognizant that allows utilities to manage the smart meters that have been showing up in homes and buildings.

On the hardware side, FreeWave Technologies’ FGR2-PE Long Range Data Radio allows data connectivity of up to 60 miles using a license-free frequency. Cyber Switching’s ePower Power Distribution Unit allows users to meter individual loads, allowing load balancing, load shedding, and real-time use data to allow better power management.

One innovative product that has wide-ranging possibilities is Cinterion’s M2M World. This control system monitors energy producing equipment such as photovoltaic systems and windmills, and relates available surplus power information wirelessly to the Smart Grid control center. The control center then activates noncritical equipment such as dishwashers and clothes washers in eco-flex households. It also signals EV charging stations and switches the charging mode from normal to fast charging. Additional power information can also be sent to industrial plant equipment. The same equipment can also shut down noncritical equipment remotely to avoid brownouts or blackouts when power supplies are low. It can also take power from electric vehicles when the grid is overloaded. This product is the embodiment of what the Smart Grid is all about. 

As the Smart Grid matures, so will the products and services that support it. It is incumbent on design engineers to stay aware of the multitude of options available in order to design intelligent systems and advise their clients of the various possibilities. Engineers also will need to keep current on future standards as they are developed and approved to make sure designs meet the latest system requirements and all devices can effectively communicate, allowing the Smart Grid to maximize its potential.

Mark Fisher is head of the electrical department at Alfa Tech Consulting Enterprises. His expertise is in sustainable design, and he has written white papers on plug load reduction and commercial kitchen energy reduction. He is a member of the California Division of the State Architect’s Green Committee and the Illuminating Engineering Society’s Library Lighting Committee.

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