Bringing Knowledge To Power:  How the Smart Grid Will Change Our Future

Intelligent. Sensitive. Flexible. These words may read like the opening monologue of Sex in the City, but they’re in fact a representation of the future of our energy infrastructure. Indeed, our great challenge today is to morph the national electric grid from the old boor of a man it is today into the modern, attentive and efficient “man of our dreams.”

The manifestation of that dream is called a Smart Grid. Our current grid is, if anything, not that. Today, we struggle to use 21st-century technology and energy by way of a 20th-century grid system that simply can’t “understand” and manage the digital age.

smart grid power linesPhoto Credit: TreeHugger

Out with the old

It’s certainly not for lack of size that the current grid is sagging under pressure. According to the Department of Energy, the old grid contains 9,200 electric generating units and 300,000 miles of transmission lines, including over 1 million megawatts of generating capacity. And yet it’s so inefficient as to need immediate upgrade.

The elder grid is a momentous achievement of 20th-century innovation, and a smarter grid will not destroy that lesson. It’ll merely update it to handle increasing diversity in energy supplies, technology, and communication.

You might be wondering why the grid hasn’t evolved with other technologies. Unfortunately, it’s been met with relative neglect over the last 30 years. In that time, investment in transmission infrastructure has fallen to less than two percent of total industry revenue. Since 1982, growth in peak demand for electricity has exceeded transmission growth by nearly 25 percent annually.

The end result is the weary, overburdened, blackout-prone grid we must now overhaul. It’s like the classic example of home electrical safety that shows 10 or 15 electric cords plugged into the same outlet…it’s just asking for a fire. One that we’re increasingly fighting to our own financial chagrin. There have been five major blackouts in the last 40 years, three of them have occurred in the last nine.

The DOE points out that the 20th-century grid lacks in three fundamental areas: energy efficiency, environmental impact and customer choice. In a society so connected by the internet and digital gadgets, it’s kind of amazing that the electric grid supporting and powering all these devices is so archaic that it often won’t know of a blackout until a consumer first reports it.

In with the new

The Smart Grid will work to solve those problems. It’s meant to empower both the customer, power generator and utility in a way that increases efficiency, reduces costs, and provides utility customers with unprecedented control over usage & costs.

The smart grid of the future will entail several concepts, in development now, that will radically change the way we purchase and experience electricity from the grid. These include advanced metering infrastructure, visualization technology and phasor measurement units.

  • Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) - Smart meters are often mistaken for the primary component of a smart grid, but they’re in fact just one of many components of the end product. Yet their importance to smart grid innovation must not be underestimated. AMI will integrate consumers into the power grid in unprecedented ways. Consumers will be able to program personal settings for energy usage by time of day, season, etc. The electric grid and the home will then be able to communicate. Price signals will be sent from the grid to home controllers, which will then automatically adjust thermostats, washers/dryers, refrigerators and other high-end energy users to minimize usage and costs during peak hours. As the DOE puts it, the home will respond to the occupants, rather than vice-versa.
  • Visualization Technology - Visualization will provide the smart grid with better “situational awareness,” including real-time load monitoring and load-growth planning. It’ll integrate real-time data, weather information and grid modeling with geographical information. Eventually, the grid will be intelligent enough to know and understand load characteristics at the national level and then, within seconds, narrow that focus to specific locations - down to street level. In this way, the grid will be able to recognize immediate blackouts and fluctuations in power quality, providing grid controllers with valuable insight into the system as it works in real-time and the ability to address issues in a much timelier fashion.
  • Phasor Measurement Units (PMU) - Also known as the grid’s “health meter,” PMU systems sample voltage and current many times per second. This provides valuable awareness of what is going on throughout the national grid. Demand spikes or falls can be noted as they happen and power can easily be rerouted to where it’s needed most at any given time. This will greatly increase grid efficiency and provide power companies with valuable data as well.
  • Microgrids - Several programs are currently underway to study and develop blueprints for local and regional smart grid systems. They want to create a grid that simply cannot fail to produce enough power to meet the basic needs of its constituents or end-users, and the interconnectivity of the Smart Grid will enable such a system. It will break the larger national grid up into to “microgrids,” each self-sufficient in its own right. Utilizing a grid made up at a high percentage of distributed-generation systems (rooftop solar arrays, etc.), innovations such as super circuits, microgrid technologies, and the communication skills of smart grid technology will enable grid controllers to seamlessly switch to and spread out these clean energy sources in the event of a failure from utility-scale generation plants. In other words, if all the lights go out, the grid can immediately distribute power from sources unaffected by plant failure to ensure that basic needs are met, like food refrigeration, lighting, etc.

Many of these technologies are already in action in select areas. The hope is that these initial programs will spawn the full integration of a smart grid. There’s still a lot of research and development to be done. After nearly 30 years of relative neglect, we have an uphill battle to fight in improving our dated electrical grid.

san-francisco-smart-grid.jpgPhoto Credit: The Light is Green

The future of cooperation

It will require the efforts of regulators, utilities, investors and consumers. A smart grid will not come cheaply, but the more energy efficient we can make the grid (including consumers’ homes), the less additional infrastructure will have to be built. A smarter grid should also have a smaller footprint. On that note, innovations such as improved energy storage, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, green building and superconducting power cables will all play roles as well.

In the same way that the internet (and e-mail) revolutionized the way we interact and do business, so the Smart Grid will completely change the way we use and live with energy. Gone will be the days of paying a power bill without reading it. In the future, your home and the grid will work seamlessly together to monitor and control power usage in real time.

Consumers will at all times be fully aware of how much power is being used. The refrigerator will talk to the home meter, which will communicate with the local grid, which will, in turn, make every detail visible at the national level - all in a fraction of a second. Every aspect of the electrical grid will be redefined or improved, and the near century-old power grid will finally catch up with the new millennium.

Source: The Smart Grid: An Introduction from the U.S. Dept. of Energy

Posted on August 25 in Solar Electric by .

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