Is This The Future Of Electric Power? What Is Smart Grid Technology

Is This The Future Of Electric Power? What Is Smart Grid Technology

Posted 08.09.2012 in Articles by Jess

Our current electric grid was built over one hundred years ago when our electricity needs were simple. Advancing every decade, today it consists of more than 9,200 electric generating units with more than 1 million megawatts of generating capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines. While the electric grid is considered an engineering wonder, its patchwork is being stretched to the limit. In order to move forward into the 21st Century, we need a new kind of electric grid built from the bottom up. This new grid will be able to handle the movement of digital and computerized equipment and technology dependent on it. What makes this new grid so “smart”?

A smart grid means to add computer and communications technology to the existing electricity grid. It allows for two-way communication between the utility and its customers. The sensing along the transmission line is what makes this grid “smart”. With an overlay of digital technology, the grid promises to operate more efficiently and reliably. It can also accommodate more solar and wind power, which are inconsistent sources of energy that can become more reliable with better controls. 

Encompassed within the overall plan for the new smart grid are specific values and milestones that must be met. The smart grid will be more reliable in the sense that it will provide power, when and where users need it and of the quality they value. It will be more secure to withstand physical and cyber attacks without suffering massive blackouts or exorbitant recovery costs. It is also less vulnerable to natural disasters and recovers quickly. It will be more economic to operate under the basic laws of supply and demand, resulting in fair prices and adequate supplies. Its efficiency will employ strategies that lead to cost control, minimal transmission and distribution losses, efficient power production, optimal asset utilization while providing consumers options for managing their energy usage. The smart grid will be an environmentally friendly grid to reduce environmental impacts through improvements in efficiency and by enabling the integration of a larger percentage of intermittent resources than could otherwise be reliably supported. It will also be a safe grid that does no harm to the public or to grid workers and is sensitive to users who depend on it as a medical necessity. 

Some of the milestones of the new grid will be Consumer Enablement (CE), which will empower consumers by giving them the information and education they need to effectively utilize the new options provided by the smart grid. Advanced Distribution Operations (ADO) will improve reliability and enable “self-healing”. Advanced Transmission Operations (ATO) will integrate the distribution system with RTO operational and market applications to enable improved overall grid operations and reduced transmission congestion. Lastly, the Advanced Asset Management (AAM) will integrate the grid intelligence acquired in achieving the other milestones with new and existing asset management applications. 

The smart grid is different from today's grid in that it would provide more detailed information through home energy-monitoring tools for consumers. These can be small displays or web-based programs that give a real0time view of how much energy you're using. Making that information more accessible will give people ideas on how to save on energy bills by 5 to 10 percent. This grid is taking a step toward efficiency with “demand response” where the goal is to dial back energy consumption at peak times. It's important to utilities because it's costly and polluting to bring on auxiliary power plants to meet, for example a spike in demand from air conditioning on a hot summer day. Consumers and businesses have financial incentives to participate, such as a discounted rate. A smarter grid also makes distributed energy, such as home solar systems more viable and user-friendly. 

The reason we haven't done any of these things yet is because the energy industry invests a lower percentage of revenue in technology than most industries. Also, the whole point of a smarter grid is to use electricity more efficiently, but in many states in the U.S. utilities operate without strong incentives for efficiency, say industry executives. They invest big dollars (think multibillion dollar power plants), based on their ability to sell more kilowatt-hours, not less. The more progressive utilities have found ways to justify their investments in the smart grid based on savings from energy reductions, but many utilities aren't nearly as enthusiastic because of how they are regulated. Also, for all the tasks that need to be done, there are a lack of standards and organization. 

When implemented, smart grid technology will steer us towards the right direction for our future. While there is much respect for our electrical grid now, it will need to change drastically in order to keep up with growing demand and environmental changes. 


Image (CC) PNNL-Pacific Northwest National Laboratory 
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