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Monday, January 5, 2009

Smart Grid 101

So what exactly is a Smart Grid? According to the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory, in order for our power grid to qualify as a "smart" grid, it must have the following characteristics:

  • Self-healing from power disturbance events
  • Enabling active participation by consumers in demand response
  • Operating resiliently against physical and cyber attack
  • Providing power quality for 21st century needs
  • Accommodating all generation and storage options
  • Enabling new products, services, and markets
  • Optimizing assets and operating efficiently
Technology Review magazine has a great article on why smart grids are a critical ingredient for our clean energy future. Basically, the grid that we have today is pretty much the same thing that Thomas Edison created out of his labs in Menlo Park New Jersey - 110 years ago! The grid was not equipped to handle variable power sources like wind or solar and it was not built with the capability to control electricity usage on the demand side - so that instead of firing up expensive power plants to meet excess demand the grid would have the ability to shut down certain power consumers - or even tap into your plugged in plug-in vehicle's excess power. It may sound far fetched but there are already small scale smart grid projects currently under way throughout the US and countries such as Germany.

If you want a more detailed analysis of smart grids then The Cleantech blog's Richard Stuebi has pointed us to a very informative DOE reported titled "The Smart Grid: An Introduction." A big hat tip to Richard for also listing the following key data points that he was able to pull from the report:
  • The U.S. power grid consists of 9200 electric generating units connected by 300,000 miles of transmission lines -- of which only 668 miles were added since 2000.
  • Between 1988-98, U.S. electricity demand increased by nearly 30%, while transmission capacity grew by only 15%.
  • In the U.S., there were 41% more outages affecting more than 50,000 customers in the second half of the 1990's than in the first half of the 1990's.
  • The average age of a substation transformer on the U.S. power grid is 42 years -- two years more than their expected life span.
  • 10% of all generation assets, and 25% of distribution infrastructure, are required for less than 5% of the hours of the year.

Here are a few things that I want to see from our next generation grid - in no particular order:
  • Easier to hook solar power and other renewable power sources into the grid. Today, if you had solar panels or wind turbines installed at your residence you would have to purchase an expensive converter to change the direct current to alternating current
  • When a tree knocks down one power line it doesn't take down the entire town's electricity with it. This seems to happen on a weekly basis around these parts - and right after posting this I read this headline on the PG "Power restored after crash knocks down lines..."
  • Better analytic capabilities for your home or business's electricity consumption. Smart metering is good but it is still not available in most places. The most easiest and cost efficient way to deliver information to consumers is to put it online. I want to to be able to login to my account and see real time data on total usage along with the appliances that are using the most electricity. This shouldn't be too diffucult but it would require the appliances to be "smart" as well, meaning a standardized identification system by applance category (television, refridgerator, stereo, etc) would have to be determined before this could come to fruition.

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