How the Smart Grid Will Change Your Life

Posted in Green Technology, Science on Thursday, 21 July 2011 04:35

The Buzzword Breakdown Series is supported by The Network, Cisco’s technology news site. The Network features technology news, trends and information on video, collaboration, core networks, mobility, security, data, Cisco culture and social media.

The "smart grid" is a rapidly growing set of technologies, processes, devices and applications that affect and enhance the traditional electric grid. These advances are partially driven by exponentially growing demands worldwide for energy as expressed in a commonly repeated statistic that "global electricity demand is expected to increase 75% by 2030." What's happening with the smart grid also reflects developments made in communications, from Internet to cellular to wireless, as well as higher expectations from consumers regarding energy availability, rising energy costs and access to their energy information. A smarter grid will also help integrate renewable energy including wind and solar into the energy mix.

Defining the Smart Grid

To understand the smart grid, you first need to get familiar with the 125-year-old electric grid. Most people don't think about where the electricity they're using comes from or how it gets to their homes and offices. The electric grid consists of several main touchpoints in an overall system that gets electricity from creation to the end user:

The main touchpoints for electricity include:

  • Generation — the creation of electrons that make up electricity.
  • Transmission — moving high-voltage power from generators at power plants through transmission lines, reducing it down to 12,000 volts.
  • Distribution — where residential transformers convert power to the 110 volts running in U.S. homes.
  • Retail — the metering, monitoring and measuring of power usage that results in a bill to the consumer from a utility company.
  • Customer/Consumption — the end user experience with the power.

Smart grid technologies and innovations occur at — and can affect — any and all steps of the electricity ecosystem. Some are more focused on the utility side while others address the customer.

Smart Grid Developments

Luke Clemente, general manager of metering and sensing for GE's digital energy business, recounts that in the "old days" up until the last 10 to 15 years, utility workers — meter readers — were deployed into neighborhoods to read and write down data retrieved from energy meters in people's back yards. The first major change to this process came in the form of Automatic Meter Reading (AMR), through which meters communicate via a one-way signal to a truck that is driven through neighborhoods to collect data.

Now we're seeing Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) going beyond just reading meters and sending data to utilities — it also sends information back to the home and to the consumer.

Smart meters aren’t effective without some kind of communications method to transmit data such as cellular, Wi-Fi or other wireless protocols. One company offering an alternative wireless communication system is On-Ramp Wireless, a three-and-a-half year old company that has a system operating on the unlicensed spectrum of wireless communications. Unlike cellular systems such as GSM and GDMA, the On-Ramp system isn’t optimized for tens of users but instead for tens of thousands of "users" that are in actuality devices, such as meters and sensors.

"We focus on connecting a limited number of infrastructure base stations to thousands of devices with directionality focused on uplink — with the data passing from the device up towards the base station or ‘Access Point,’" says Jonas Olsen, VP of strategic marketing for On-Ramp Wireless. Their system is designed for extremely long-range and broad coverage so utility companies can deploy these communication networks more cheaply and reach more devices more effectively. Other companies in this space include Silver Spring Networks, Itron and Trilliant, all of which offer both hardware and software solutions that utilize a different communications spectrum than On-Ramp.

Other interesting developments on the consumer side of the smart grid are web portals and dashboards that present aggregated power usage data in ways a layperson can understand. Olsen points to an interesting smart grid test program using a device by Tendril, a smart grid technology company that offers devices, software and services to utilities. Olsen received a device that connected to the Internet and a display that spoke to a radio in his home's smart meter via a short-range wireless system. Now he gets real-time data about his power consumption and can see the hourly cost of using everything from his air conditioner to his hot tub.

"This is information we never had before," says Olsen. "And it can help as you try to regulate your own consumption." Eventually, with systems like this along with "time-of-day pricing," you will know exactly how much money you're spending down to the minute, and you’ll be able to modify your behavior to use your appliances at different times. Or better yet, you'll benefit from an automated system that regulates usage for you based on your usage habits and peak usage times to run certain appliances at "cheaper" times of the day. In addition to Tendril, there are companies like Opower, Welectricity and Rockethome in Germany looking to engage consumers and nudge changes in energy consumption behavior.

Global Smart Grid Adoption is Going Strong

Smart grid adoption is happening across the globe. As examples of extensive smart meter deployment, Scott Smith, VP of global technical services at eMeter, cites:

  • Toronto, Ontario, Canada — Ontario was the first province in Canada to introduce what is referred to as "time-of-use pricing." The system is said to have 100% smart meter deployment.
  • Texas, U.S. — The electricity market in the state of Texas has been deregulated, and the state has close to a 100% saturation of smart meters along with an automated system to give customers their energy usage data through smart grid technology and web portals.
  • Scandinavia — At 100% penetration, citizens of Sweden and Finland are seeing the benefits of the smart grid, including in-home smart technologies.

While the United States may be spending the most money on smart grid tech innovation and deployment, other countries making significant headway with implementation include Australia, New Zealand and parts of Europe, including Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and France. In Asia, while Japan and South Korea are already heavily invested in the smart grid, China is poised to become a major investor. Asia and Latin America are seen as emerging smart grid markets as they roll out smart meter programs in India and Brazil.

Within the U.S., California utilities are among those at the forefront of the smart grid, says Clemente. He adds that Florida Power and Light's Energy Smart Miami Project was "very impressive." Austin Energy deployed its Smart Grid Program in the Texas capital three years ago.

Where the Smart Grid Could/Should Go

Depending on whom you speak with about the smart grid, and what his role is in the smart grid ecosystem, you'll get an entirely different answer when you ask where the smart grid is headed — or needs to head — for the greatest success. Keep in mind that there are not only different points along the energy ecosystem that the smart grid touches — there are also many different stakeholders with varied needs and expectations. There are the utility companies managing the power, the companies producing the hardware, software and systems being used on the smart grid and the consumers who are using the power.

Scott Hublou, SVP of products and co-founder of the cloud-based residential energy management platform EcoFactor, outlines what he thinks the smart grid needs in the future:

  • 1. Data connection between demand (when you turn a light on) and generation (energy being created in a power plant). If you can get more granular data about usage, you can better forecast energy needs and usage, which then can be applied to create more efficient energy generation.
  • 2. Electricity storage. When there’s low energy demand, excess energy should be able to be stored and then accessed or discharged during peak usage periods. For an example of storage on a small scale, consider an electric vehicle — when turned off and plugged in, it’s storing energy to be used during the day when the car is running. EcoFactor's technology does something similar for air conditioning by communicating with a home's thermostat to pre-cool the home in advance of the hottest part of the day to keep the home cool during a higher demand periods so the air conditioner doesn't have to run during peak hours.
  • 3. Automated energy efficiency for consumers. Homeowners do not usually have the time or inclination to proactively make their homes, offices, cars and other environments more energy-efficient. Hublou says in order to reduce energy usage and shift grid load, we need more services that automatically make smarter energy choices.
  • 4. The private market needs to step up to the plate. Hublou says that instead of relying on government-sponsored programs, the private sector needs to develop products and/or services that can be easily packaged and delivered to consumers. For example, a telecom company could add an energy efficiency program to its offerings, adding a commercial layer to the smart grid so it becomes more accessible to consumers.

Regardless of where the innovations are coming from, smart grid infrastructure serves utilities and consumers by leveraging information technology to bring advanced communications to a previously "dumb" network. By putting a greater emphasis on information retrieval, aggregation, reporting and analysis that goes "both ways" between companies and consumers, the potential to save on energy and modify energy consumption behavior can benefit everyone — with an emphasis on potential.

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Source: Mashable

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