Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Smart Grid -- Part I: Electricity with a Brain

Electricity is pretty stupid. It can’t do anything by itself -- we have to tell it what to do, when to do it, where to go and how. We haven't done that very well. Today’s electricity comes from a grid with central generating stations and electromechanical power delivery systems operated from control centers that Thomas Edison  and other nineteenth century electrical pioneers would find pretty familiar and unimpressive.

Their eyes might light up if we distributed electricity not from a "dumb system" but a smart grid -- a grid that relies on computer intelligence and automated networking, with components that would be able to talk and listen to each other. Right now, that's not the case. And it's costing us dearly -- the economic impact alone is significant.

Ian Hiskens, University of Michigan Vennema Professor of Engineering, has written that, according to various reports, "smart grid technology will save consumers $49 billion per year, create 280,000 jobs."

So building a smart grid is critical to economic recovery. To that end, the Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus contains $11 billion for smart grid technology -- the single largest investment in the entire stimulus package. In a recent speech at George Mason University, US President Barack Obama said he wanted to build a "smart" electric grid that would deliver "clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation."

Money aside, a smart grid would also keep customers happy, homes cool or warm, and businesses humming. The stupid grid? Not so much. For example, there are areas where a customer has to call about a power outage in order for a power company to be aware of the problem. A smart grid, however, would know immediately that something had interrupted service – the smart grid might have "smart meters" that "listen" to the flow of electricity and begin to "talk" to the company when the cables go quiet. If components of an electrical grid were to have IP addresses and could listen and talk, it would be smart enough to help companies distribute electricity efficiently. They could respond quickly to outages and other problems. And they could maintain the grid more easily because it could tell them where all of its aches and pains were.

Without a smart grid, any electricity we might produce from renewable sources -- wind farms and solar plants, for instance -- would flow into our long outdated grid system, which might be like pouring champagne into an old boot.

We’re already wasting our wind and solar electrical production because our grid can't move it where it's needed. Right now, wind, solar and other non-hydro renewable sources generate only two percent of the nation's electricity, so we’re not really seeing how our aging grid is wasting what we produce. But if our renewable energy sources begin to produce energy that, if used to its full potential, would account for 15 percent to 20 percent of our total electric energy, then we'd need a smart grid to make that possible. A grid of that sort would also require a "transmission backbone" -- a high-voltage cross-country pipeline -- to move solar and wind power from the Midwest and Southwest (the best sites for wind production) to highly populated areas.

According to the United Stated Department of Energy, four types of technology will drive the advancement of smart grids:

Those are just a a few of the challenges that engineers must overcome -- within a handful or years, not decades -- if we are to succeed in not only generating electricity from renewable sources but also using it to its full potential.

    This is Part I of III related posts. 

    Part II: The Smart Grid -- Implementing a National Clean-energy Smart Grid

    Read more:

    The Smart Grid: An Introduction (PDF, 4.4MB)

    20% Wind Energy by 2030 (PDF, 9MB)

    Stimulus Bill Has Billions for Smart Grids

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