TOO OFTEN DESIGNERS ONLY CONSIDER THE PRODUCT they are working on without taking into account how it will be used within a system. Sometimes this is an unknown variable, but using a systems approach to design will help ensure the product operates properly in whatever system it is placed.
The systems approach is a framework based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of their relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. The only way to fully understand why a problem occurs is to understand it relative to the whole.
Designing in this way requires an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that make up the system. Acknowledging that an improvement in one area of a system can adversely affect another area, system thinking promotes organizational communication at all levels.
A simple example of this approach might be designing and integrating a power supply into a system. You could investigate in great detail the power supply's internal design, and then extend your thinking to include the following interactions:
- Load power requirements
- Input power
- System cooling
- System EMI
- Packaging within the system
- System signal interfaces
The systems approach will certainly be necessary in the design of the Smart Grid, the in-process electronic/electrical system that is now gaining a lot of attention; you can read a detailed article in this issue (P. 16). A Smart Grid uses digital technology to improve the reliability, security, and efficiency (both economic and energy) of every facet of the electrical system, from utility power generation to delivery systems to electricity consumers, and a growing number of distributed-generation and storage resources.
Information networks transforming our economy in other areas are being used for dynamic optimization of electrical system operations, maintenance, and planning. Resources and services that were separately managed are now being integrated and re-bundled as we address traditional problems in new ways, adapt the system to tackle new challenges, and discover new benefits that have transformational potential.
A July 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) pointed out areas of the electrical system that cover the scope of a Smart Grid, including:
- Delivery infrastructure (e.g., transmission and distribution lines, transformers, switches)
- End-use systems and related distributed-energy resources (e.g., building and factory loads, distributed generation, storage, electric vehicles)
- Management of generation and delivery infrastructure at the various levels of system coordination (e.g., transmission and distribution control centers, regional reliability coordination centers, national emergency response centers)
- Information networks themselves (e.g., remote measurement and control communications networks, inter- and intra-enterprise communications, public Internet)
- Financial and regulatory environmental issues that fuel investment and motivate decision makers to procure, implement, and maintain all aspects of the system (e.g., stock and bond markets, government incentives, regulated or non-regulated rate-of-return on investment).
The DoE report notes that “Smart Grid is socially transformational”. As with the Internet or cell-phone communications, our experience with electricity will change dramatically. To successfully integrate high levels of automation requires cultural change. The integration of automation systems within and between the electricity-delivery infrastructure, distributed resources, and end-user systems needs to embrace solutions that recognize well-accepted principles, methodologies, and tools that are commonly used in communications, information technology, and related disciplines to enable interactions between all economic sectors and individual businesses.
Improving security, information privacy, and interoperability (conveniently connect and work within a collaborative system) requires disciplines and best practices that are subscribed to by all stakeholders. A cross-disciplinary change that instills greater interaction among all the stakeholders is a necessary characteristic as we advance toward a Smart Grid.