You’ve probably heard a lot of media buzz about the smart grid. Most of what I hear emphasizes the consumer household benefits due to smart meters and their effect on consumer power consumption. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you look under the water, you’ll find a fascinating, complex vision for future power generation and distribution. I don’t doubt that there will be an upgrade to the nation’s power grid, but fully implementing this vision will create an unprecedented number of opportunities for device manufacturers, the wireless industry and cloud computing.
The Aging Utility Grid
There’s also a lot of talk about America’s aging utility grid, including comments from Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the official research arm of America’s power utilities. Most of today’s power grids are based on 1950’s technology with few, if any, sensors or communication capabilities and dated control systems. Utility operators can’t see the grid. Even if operators could see the grid, they could not act due to the lack of adequate control systems. The grid’s lack of resilience—how quickly and intelligently it can recover from a disruption—was exemplified by the 2003 blackout that affected about 50 million Americans and Canadians and cost power users around $7 billion. Improving reliability and making it possible to deliver innovative new power sources will require a transformation of today’s centralized, unintelligent grid into a smart, distributed network. This is sometimes referred to as the “energy Internet.”
Utilities Developing a Solution
Fortunately, the industry is developing a multi-tiered plan that includes smart sensors, real-time control systems, storage and generation. There are plans to install sensors throughout the network that will send data about grid conditions to the cloud. With this information, updated controls can be installed that can switch power in milliseconds, avoiding problems and potential disaster. Additionally, the installation of power storage devices that smooth out fluctuations in power flow will enhance optimization in the long term. I anticipate a number of advanced energy storage devices, such as advanced capacitors and batteries, flywheels—even consumers’ electric cars—that will plug into this upgraded grid.
The Rise of Micropower
Longer term, I expect one of the more interesting developments to be the implementation and proliferation of “micropower” sources—smaller power sources, such as scattered wind farms, solar farms, and fuel cells, located near end-users, as opposed to the current grid design of a limited number of large sources located much farther away.
Ultimately, the grid may be transformed into a wirelessly-controlled, digital network capable of handling complex, multi-directional flows of power. Communications and computing must be both cost effective and easy to install. These criteria greatly favor wireless communications and cloud computing. Companies capable of delivering the necessary wireless communications and cloud computing functionality must also be armed with outstanding service level agreements and disaster recovery capabilities.