(T) Is the Smart Power Grid “reality” or “hype”? There are definitely a number of inflated expectations about what is presently the Smart Grid, why do we need it or how to design and implement it. Depending on who you listen to or what you read – the Electrical Power Research Institute (EPRI), the Department of Energy (DoE), the utilities, the start-ups, and the large industrial equipment providers from Silver Spring Networks to GE – everyone has its own story; and that is more obvious when you read the media. Hype is good since it can accelerate the penetration of new technologies but hype can sometimes disrupt the birth of new technology. Technology needs to be nurtured and to grow before to make any difference.
Having said that, there are fundamental reasons why the power industry needs to quickly upgrade its grid to a smarter one. The major motivation for the Smart Grid is that the end nodes of the delivery system that includes power transmission and distribution are changing.
The power plants that will generate the energy of tomorrow have to evolve. Renewable energy, in particular, Solar and Wind, are creating a major challenge for the utilities. They are introducing stochastic ( e.g. uncertain) power generation. Although forecasting the sunshine in San Francisco is not too difficult; forecasting it in Boston is much more challenging. However, try to forecast the energy production in both cities from a wind park a day ahead or even five hours in advance! Solar and wind power generation makes every day different for the utilities. And as a consequence, utilities need to adopt new storage systems from a new generation of large-scale batteries capable of storing from 10 Mega Watts to 1 Gigawatt to smaller ones capable of storing from 100 kiloWatts to 10 Mega Watts. And, they will have to build a new generation of large-scale storage power plants.
The other major evolution to the end node of the present grid is the Home Area Networks (HAN) for residential consumers or Building Area Networks (BAN) for business consumers. Both residential and business customers will likely have in the soon future their own energy generation system from solar powers and wind turbines. In that case, the grid does not become the first source of power for the home or the building but an addition to it or a back-up. Second, the need to provide power for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) is disrupting the demand for electricity both on a time scale – everyone will likely recharge his or her PHEV after work in the evening – and on a geographic scale – purchasers of PHEV tend to live near each other (Berkeley, California, for example, represents 18% of all customers in PG&E‘s territory while Fresno, California, is only 2%).
Besides accommodating the generation, distribution, and storage of Solar and Wind Energy and the penetration of PHEV, utilities need to upgrade the power grid to sustain efficiency and resiliency.
An efficient grid is required to improve the “Demand Response” that is the temporary and voluntary adjustment of power demand by the residential or business end-users in response to price changes or emergency needs. To that end, the industry is adopting smart network interfaces and smart meters.
A resilient grid is required to decrease the magnitude and the duration of blackouts such as the one in 2003 in the US North East that can cost billions of dollar to the economy. To that end, the industry is adopting a new generation of monitoring and control systems that will provide higher visibility and better control of the grid behavior, and a new generation of protection and restoration network systems.
According to EPRI, the vision of the Smart Grid is to engage customers, enhance efficiency, ensure reliability and enabling renewable energy and electric transportation. The power network will integrate a communication fabric that reaches every device and highly instrumented with advanced sensors and computing systems. Logically, the Smart Grids can be viewed as seven “domains”: the power generation, the transmission system, the distribution system, the customer, the markets, the network operations, and the service providers. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is presently in charge of coordinating the development of a framework to achieve the interoperability of Smart Grid devices and systems.
According to the Cleantech Group, over one billion dollars have already been invested in Smart Grid start-ups since the early 2000s. In order to increase our supply of energy and to generate it from renewable energy and to accommodate the new requirements to sustain the environment, total worldwide investments in the Smart Grid will likely grow from today’s billion dollars to the hundreds of billions of dollars in the next twenty years.
So let’s hope that the present hype in the Smart Grid will help to modernize the electric power system by focusing on the benefits of the renewable energy, the requirements to facilitate electric transportation while considering a holistic approach to the network by removing the present deficiencies and implementing innovative and cost effective solutions.
Note 1: This article partially used background information from the talk, I attended, “The Smart Power Grid” by Stephen Lee from EPRI at the IEEE Power Electronics Society Santa Clara Valley Chapter on October 21, 2009.
Note 2: The picture above is my house interface to the present grid of PG&E with my new smart meter (although I have only currently a smart meter for electricity not for gas yet).
Note 3: The picture on the side is from EPRI: the house of the future.
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