TS-491726419_overlay2_webThe largest (connected) machine in the world

In 2000, the National Academy of Engineering named the U.S. electric power grid as one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century, one that’s known as the largest machine in the world. This machine has more than 200,000 miles of high-voltage lines (>230 kV) and 3 million miles of distribution circuits. The electricity grid has interconnected system of generating plants, wires, transformers, and substations powers houses, offices, and factories for 315 million people in the world’s largest economy. Consider:

  • It connects 10 distinct power markets: California (CAISO), Midwest (MISO), New England (ISO-NE), New York (NYISO), Northwest, PJM, Southeast, Southwest, SPP, and Texas (ERCOT)
  • It spans 3,200 utilities, 55,000 substations, and 464,000 feeders
  • It contains 19,000 individual generators and just under 7,000 operational power plants1

Challenges the electricity grid faces

Yet, even large systems must evolve, and so the grid is facing a new set of challenges.

One Way Street. Originally designed to transfer power from remote bulk generators to consumers, the grid needs a structural overhaul as business models shift to two-way flow and net metering.

PerformanceDOE’s Electric Disturbance Events Annual Summary indicates that outages are on the rise. Many industry leaders have called out aging of the grid as a priority focus area. The continuing reliance on fossil fuel meant that utilities spend significant effort to meet sustainability and emission norms like the mandates in the EPA’s Clean Air Act.

Security. Cybersecurity of the grid is another critical aspect, especially given concerns around national security. The grid needs more overall operational visibility as well as the automation needed to make decisions in real time.

All of these challenges are pushing the digitization of the grid, making the world’s largest machine connected.

Digitizing the grid: the technology perspective

Many of these challenges can be addressed with new technologies.

One-way to two-way. As Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) & microgrids proliferate the grid need to integrate of numerous renewable and microgrids to myriad consumption points and support two way flows. Along with storage mechanisms microgrids help balance and smooth variations in energy supply, provide services, such as voltage support and frequency regulation and export electricity to the larger grid to make a profit or provide a boost during emergencies. These capabilities are enabled through advanced automation and controllers.

Advanced Automation and Controllers are a crucial part of microgrid functionality. They convert distributed energy resources into one actionable load that can be controlled to meet individual microgrid needs and at the same time maintaining grid performance. Controllers rely on data collected by various grid devices and reliable and high-speed communication networks.

Improving performance. The aging grid needs to be made smarter. Transmission-line sensors help optimize power transmission by collecting power-flow data. Microprocessor-based controllers known as intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) can be placed on equipment such as circuit breakers, transformers, and capacitor banks to provide real-time monitoring of power-system equipment. Advances in electricity storage and phasor measurement units (PMUs) help to optimize the power grid’s performance across the nation.

These sophisticated devices residing at the edge of the grid collect critical information and transmit it back over advanced low-latency wide area measurement systems (WAMS) for SCADA systems to process. Together these advances in technology provide grid operators with advanced capabilities like faster than real-time simulation, improved load modeling and forecasting tools, probabilistic vulnerability assessment, and enhanced visualization.

Security. As the grid ‘opens’ up more to accommodate DERs & Microgrids more opportunities and possibly more vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit will also appear. This could heighten the threat of attacks on the distribution network with cascading effects.  To mitigate this ability to monitor threats, security guards etc. will need to be implemented in all aspects of the system, down to end-use devices.

A more complex system

While today’s demands are mostly predictable, the future will likely be a mix of regulated and competitive services. All these complexities in dynamic balancing, inter-dependencies, and customer expectations can be managed through automation, analytics, and advanced communications.

Thus the system will be even more complex, even with all of the new tools and technologies available to grid operators. Visualizing the complexity underlying the grid is almost beyond the realm of possibility. But the real beauty is that to most people, the system will continue to be the black box it is today, one that they expect to provide uninterrupted power with every flip of a switch.

If you’d like to learn how Cognizant is helping Energy & Utilities firms in their digital transformation journey, check out our website or contact us via the contact form on the right.


  • 1 “Estimating the Costs and Benefits of the Smart Grid: A Preliminary Estimate of the Investment Requirements and the Resultant Benefits of a Fully Functioning Smart Grid.” EPRI, Palo Alto, CA: 2011.1022519
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