A General Electric executive who is a Purdue engineer gave a lecture Wednesday on the smart grid, a technology that delivers energy through automated computer systems.
John McDonald, who received the Outstanding Electrical and Computer Engineer award from Purdue in 2009, directs technical strategy and policy development for General Electric. His lecture, entitled "Smart Grid: Concepts, Standards, Deployments and Lessons Learned," opened a two-day workshop on building research collaborations in electricity systems held at the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship in Discovery Park.
McDonald discussed smart grid distribution, transmission, optimization of assets and demands, industry standards, and lessons learned from recent General Electric projects on the grid. The smart grid combines two technologies – electricity and computers – to respond to sudden changes in energy supply and demand and to deliver energy more efficiently in a world where renewable energy technologies are continually growing.
Because renewable energy places higher demands on energy systems, smart grid distribution technology must be developed to efficiently meet energy demands. For example, because the sun goes in and out of clouds, a device that adjusts variable primary voltage in solar panels operates about 50 times more often than for traditional energy sources.
"Mechanical means of control just don't work anymore," McDonald said. "We have to rethink how we control the grid."
According to McDonald, the biggest challenge in implementing the smart grid is integrating electrical infrastructure with information infrastructure. Currently, fewer than half of the 48,000 distribution substations in the United States are automated.
"When we train engineers at Purdue, they need to see the big picture, not just the box," McDonald said.
Despite these challenges, industry leaders have high hopes for the smart grid. Joseph Pekny, interim director of the Burton D. Morgan Center, described how electricity and computer technology "converge" to form a promising new system.
"When you put the two together, they have the potential to begin another golden age in entrepreneurship," Pekny said.