At the intersection of Thomas Edison and the Internet lies the smart grid, the energy industry’s newest effort to enhance the effectiveness of their power lines.
Integrating the multi-directional data capabilities of the Internet into the U.S.’s thousands of miles of transmission wires, still based on the 130-year-old system Edison designed to distribute electricity, remains one of the smart grid effort’s biggest challenges.
Companies are largely still designing products that do not “speak” to each other over the network, leaving inefficiencies in place.
The promise is that consumers can save money and power, and utilities can get clean, green electricity and reduce power system waste.
Advocates like Jason Bordoff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality see the smart grid as a “platform for innovation,” revolutionizing the way we get and use electricity as fundamentally as digital technology has revolutionized the telephone.
But realizing the smart grid transformation needs innovation from business and government, and answers to consumers about privacy, security and cost.
Smart grid development so far has been fragmented, with companies designing proprietary devices that don’t talk to each other, like early personal computers. Major competitors include multinational giants like Cisco, General Electric, Honeywell, IBM, Itron, Johnson Controls, and Siemens.
Since the whole idea of the smart grid is communication, the Obama administration made developing national open platform standards a priority so innovators can devise applications that will work anywhere, instead of competing to develop a base operating system. That government-industry effort is ongoing, and the state of the smart grid got its own session at the annual Energy Information Administration conference in April.
Getting smart grid products operational matters to the administration because it is central to efforts to ramp up large-scale renewable power.
Electricity from solar and wind varies with wind speed and clouds. Grids need to keep their output steady. The smart grid’s precision control systems will not only let operators integrate power from variable renewables, Bordoff told the conference, but also give and take power from consumer storage devices like electric vehicle batteries.
Digital power control
For consumers, the “smart meter” can track real-time power use. Some meters can “talk” to special chips in “smart” appliances, and can show real-time electricity costs. Customers can even use the Internet or mobile apps to remotely turn off big users like water heaters when power gets costly.
But the same devices let utilities control those appliances. In pilot programs, utilities offer rate breaks for permission to cut back on air-conditioning on hot afternoons, when reducing electricity use saves them money. But consumer advocates worry that, in the future, utilities will force customers to accept controls or pay higher rates.
Usage data also tracks which appliances a customer uses and when the appliances are being used. That data has value to everyone from marketers to criminals. Privacy advocates worry about who will own the data, and how it will be secured.
Some innovations are already being installed, like synchrophasers that feed grid operators real-time information on how much power is flowing over an electric line. Andrew Ott, senior vice president of markets for central Atlantic grid operator PJM, said synchrophasers give operators rapid-response digital controls to isolate problems quickly, lowering power waste and risks of blackouts.
Payment disputes loom
Another stumbling block: who pays? The US grid is actually three grids that don’t interconnect. Those three were cobbled together from thousands of local utility grids. They’re still regulated by state.
The question of whether to exert more federal authority over interstate transmission is stalled in Congress by disagreement about who benefits from grid improvements and, therefore, who should pay for them.
Those challenges don’t stop advocates from proclaiming game-changing potential for the smart grid. We will have information we simply don’t have now, and that will transform the way we think about energy, said Alstom Power Chief Scientist David Sun.
What will that look like? Like nothing we’re expecting,” said Sun.