Posts Tagged ‘Smart Grid’

I’ve been following developments in the area of smart grid utilities for a few years now. I’ve written about them and I’ve studied the various technologies and approaches and I’m still a big believer in the benefits.

One thing I’ve never looked at (until today) is the terminology. I just read a real short piece written by Paul Kedrosky, of whom I am a big fan, published by HBR. Kedrosky writes “We don’t need a smart grid; we need a dumb grid with smart devices at the edges.”  I could not agree more.

He writes about “webifying” the grid.  I think that’s exactly the approach we should be taking. I’m anxious to read more about Kedrosky’s thoughts and hear some responses.


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I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the future of our electric grid and how it will change with the advent of a truly smart grid as well as the widespread adoption of electric cars. One of the biggest constraints of electricity generation and delivery is that we can not (to date) effectively store electricity. We either use it or lose it.

We’re currently working on a smart grid that will allow energy to flow from the utility company to the consumer, and also the other way. This will allow those with wind mills or solar panels to sell energy back to the grid.

Electric cars rely on huge batteries to charge at night and then power the car during the daily commute. One of the really exciting things about widespread adoption (should it occur) is that we will have the largest collection of batteries in the history of man. If you charge your car fully over night (when electricity is cheaper), then drive a few miles to work you’re not going to deplete the whole battery. There will be a lot of stored charge.

Imagine being able to plug-in at work and sell that electricity back to the utility at peak rates (after having paid off-peak rates to charge it over-night). For this to work, however, you will need a personal utility account (like a debit card). Otherwise, your employer would get the credit (since it’s probably his plug).

There are, of course, other uses: What if you get to a friend’s house for dinner and your car is running low? Should your friend have to pay for you to charge your car? Of course not!

We will need to separate the idea of a utility meter from a house/office. Currently utilities track premises. In general there is one premise per home. I think in the future it might look more like one premise per person.

There are also other options utility companies are looking at. According to a recent Wall St Journal article, some utilities are offering an “all you can eat” rate plan specifically for charging electric cars (Detroit-Edison), others are offering lower rates and free charging stations. This does not solve the problem of charging away from home, but it can provide incentive to move to an electric car. The same article suggests that someone driving a Nissan Leaf 100 miles a day (which admittedly seems like a lot) can save more $350 a month compared to driving a traditional internal combustion car getting 25 MPG.

 I think the real interesting question is “how will governments respond to electric cars?” I imagine we’ll see some free/heavily discounted public charging stations at least initially. Just as cities/states provide roads for our cars, I think it’s reasonable that they will provide power to speed the adoption of electric vehicles (and by “free”, of course I mean tax payer funded…)

 I’ll be interested to see what other policy changes emerge as a result of electric cars.

Good Talk,

[Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703882404575519641915241922.html]

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The Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory estimates the cost of power outages in the United States at over $80,000,000,000 (that’s $80 Billion) each year. The major outage in 2003 that blacked out large portions of the North East is estimated to have cost the city of New York over $1 Billion (or $36 Million per hour) and has an estimated overall cost of over $6 Billion (these figures include direct costs and indirect costs such as loss of inventory due to spoilages, lost business revenue etc). Clearly our aging power grid poses real risks to our economy.  Given our reliance on computers (which require electricity) for everything from war fighting to financial transactions to public transportation, it’s also easy to see that our aging infrastructure poses a real threat to national security. Our government has already discovered concrete plans by terrorist organizations to target our electricity grid.

So how can IT help? Broadband technologies coupled with cutting edge demand management software, outage monitoring sensors and improved data storage &a analysis can improve both the cost effectiveness and security of our energy grid. Currently the grid is a one way street. Energy flows from one of the thousands of utility companies to one of the millions of homes and business across the US. Each month the usage of that home or business is tabulated/read (either over a network or by a meter-reader) and a bill is prepared. When an outage happens, the utility is slow to find out and slow to respond.

In the future, a smart grid can help in all these areas. A smart grid turns our one way street into a two-way mutli-lane super highway. Electricity flows from the utility to the consumer, but also can flow from the consumer back to the grid (think solar panels, windmills, and electric car batteries) allowing for more effective peak demand management and creative revenue models.

Demand management software can keep the generation of electricity optimized. Currently, peak demand (or critical peak demand) requires utility companies to purchase expense electricity on the spot market or to fire up old, outdated, expensive, and heavily polluting plants that are kept only for emergencies. New software can help both customers and utilities manage demand by issuing load control commands (imagine the utility remotely turning off your air conditioner) and voluntary demand incentives (imagine getting a text message asking you to turn off your A/C in exchange for a credit on your bill). All of this can be automated and optimized.

Remote sensors along the grid can provide real-time information to the utilities companies about the health  of the grid. The 2003 blackout was caused when one of the high-capacity lines in Ohio became over-taxed, causing it to heat up and sag (as the lines carry more power they get hotter which causes them to expand and sag). This particular line sagged too close to an untrimmed tree resulting in a “flashover” that cause and ambient surge. Ultimately the surge caused a cascading blackout affecting millions. A remote sensor on this part of the grid could have alerted the local utility (in this case FirstEnergy Corporation) and the line could have been shut down or throttled. (I’m intentionally ignoring the fact that better landscaping could also have prevented the blackout).

Finally, better data management through the smart grid can mitigate the effect of outages and reduce their overall impact and cost. Outage Management Systems (OMS) can proactively monitor a company’s network and take action in the event of an outage. This will decrease response time and scope, leading to faster restoration of service.

IT is needed every step of the way to bring about a future smart grid. With over 3,000 utility companies in the United States interoperability standards will need to be developed (my guess is IP, but it could be something entirely different). Additionally, technologies for the consumer will need to be developed. I’ve had the privilege of testing some of the most cutting edge load control devices, thermostats, and in-home displays, and the information they provide will truly change consumer behavior. This provides a win for our economy, a win for the environment and a win for national security.

The National Broadband Plan, the 2008 stimulus bill, and other legislation has already highlighted the benefits of a smart grid and provided some early funding. Large scale programs are underway in TX, CA, FL and other states and soon, the technologies will be deployed in CT. The future is uncertain, the potential is great.

Good Talk,

[Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_Blackout_of_2003, http://www.elcon.org/Documents/EconomicImpactsOfAugust2003Blackout.pdf, http://www.lbl.gov/Science-Articles/Archive/EETD-power-interruptions.html ]

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