From my research so far, it seems that many of the technologies required to create a smart electrical grid are commercially practical or nearly so. It may be that the larger challenges to deploying the smart grid are fiscal and political. (A good topic for a future post.)
But most of the technological building blocks of the smart grid are still pretty new. The Clean Tech Revolution by Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder, provides a nice overview. Some of the following items are highlighted in their book, some I’ve compiled from other sources. They include:
Very-low-impedance superconducting cables and transformers. Such equipment can carry 150 times the electricity of similar-sized copper wire. They could be especially useful in highly congested areas or regions that are capacity constrained but where it is impractical to obtain new rights of way for building new transmission lines. Here’s an article about a recent deployment.
Advanced electricity storage devices. Consumers and businesses could deploy electricity storage devices on their premises to allow them to purchase and store energy when it’s cheaper and draw on that saved energy when costs are higher. Grid 2030 envisions pretty nifty “advances in distributed power generation systems and hydrogen energy technologies [that] enable the dual use of transportation vehicles for stationary power generation. For example, hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles provide electricity to the local distribution system when in the garage at home or parking lot at work.” Pernick and Wilder highlight a company called GridPoint that offers a backup power system for home use. The idea is that an electric that could interoperate and communicate with a multiplicity of such devices could do a much better job of balancing loads, optimizing energy usage, and managing costs.
Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) and Grid Monitoring. This one uses the power transmission network as a communication network. BPL was envisioned by some proponents as a way of offering broadband internet access to consumers, but this scenario has seen limited adoption. But BPL is still seen as a platform that can be used on the grid itself for monitoring, communication and coordination among utilities, grid operators and consumers.
Smart appliances. These are household appliances with circuitry that enables two-way communication with the grid and facilitates automatically reducing power usage at times of peak demand. Here’s an article about a recent proof of concept.
Smart Meters. A number of utilities have begun installing co-called smart meters on customer premises. They are usually smarter than traditional electrical meters in at least two ways: 1) they can communicate with the utility company so allow automated remote reading of the meter; 2) they track electric usage minute by minute, rather than month by month. This allows utilities to implement variable pricing, which can encourage consumers to shift consumption to lower-cost times of day, smoothing out power loads. Here’s a press release describing a giant planned deployment of these devices. Here’s an article providing more background.
How Does the Smart Grid Vision Address the Nation’s Energy Challenge?
The features of a smart grid are whizzy, but do they amount to something so compelling that the nation should invest hundreds of billions of dollars to make it a reality? Sorry, but that question is a bit outside the scope of this post. However, I can summarize what seem to be the key benefits of smartening up the grid. They include:
- reduce downtime from outages by being self healing and/or reducing the time to diagnose and pinpoint them. As we saw in my last post, the cost of outages is estimated at from $26 billion to $180 billion annually, so this benefit alone could be pretty compelling.
- balance usage patterns to reduce costs to end users and peak requirements for utilities
- increase efficiency of transmission, netting more energy per unit of input
- enable end users to monitor and manage their own use to reduce consumption and costs
- enable long-distance distribution of power from renewable sources such as wind and solar, which can be practical to generate but not near where the power is needed
- mitigate the “intermittency” problem of solar and wind through distributed storage
Beware Persuasive Analogies
The notion of a “smart” grid is so compelling that it inspires irresistible analogies. Analogies can sometimes be false even if their appeal makes us want to believe them. Here are some of the analogies about the smart grid I found in The Clean Tech Revolution:
- The clean tech revolution “will look increasingly like the computer and Internet revolutions that preceded it, embracing the distributed business models made so popular, powerful, and profitable in the 1990s.”
- Chuck McDermott of Rockport Capital Partners: “I believe there are a lot of parallels between the interstate highway of the 1950s and building out the smart grid today”
- GridPoint‘s home energy backup product described as “the TiVo of energy management” by the company’s CEO; Esther Dyson said it “does for the utility grid what the Internet did for the telephone infrastructure.”
I’m not saying those analogies are false. It’s just that the proliferation of them should be balanced by some healthy skepticism.
Where Should the Grid Fit in the List of National Priorities?
The Clean Tech Revolution cites the Electric Power Research Institute estimate of the cost to build a smart grid in the US: $160 billion by 2025. Where should this fit in our national priorities? Sorry, I can’t give a definitive answer to this question—I’m still getting up to speed on the topic. But I will note the following:
- If the cost of power outages is as high as has been estimated, that is a great place to start building the economic case
- Large-scale adoption of intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, may depend on elements of the smart grid
- The national security argument—making our power supply more resilient and less vulnerable to single points of failure—seems compelling in light of persistent concerns about terrorism
- There may well be numerous highly valuable benefits that cannot be imagined today.
Consider this passage from the Grid 2030 report:
An expanded and modernized grid will eliminate electric system constraints as an impediment to economic growth. Robust national markets for electric power transactions will encourage growth and open avenues for attracting capital to support infrastructure development and investment in new plant and equipment. New business models will emerge for small and large companies in the provision of a wide variety of new products and services for electric customers, distributors, transmitters, and generators.
A plausible and compelling vision, but a shaky basis for a business case.
The path forward to deploying a national smart grid will proceed in small steps and probably needs to proceed from the most provable economic benefits as a basis for the investment.