Smart Grid 101 – Powering technology forward

Are you plugged into the smart grid? If you’re not, you might want to start thinking about it.

Forecasting energy consumption and keeping a balance between generation and consumption has been a deep-seated struggle in the energy industry. After all, who really knows when millions of consumers will flick their light switches on or off?

Luckily, data-based forecasting is playing a huge role to mitigate this issue. Depending on the time of day, if it’s a holiday (or not), weather and other varying factors, the amount of energy consumed could either spike or plummet. As a result, over the years our systems have become smart enough to predict the load in the grid – that is, until renewable generation became a much bigger factor of uncertainty.

Renewable energy – Leading into the next energy revolution

The increase of renewable energy sources has made the process of balancing the grid much more difficult. As those energy sources often depend on the weather, this makes forecasting energy generation a Nobel Prize-worthy feat. And this serious challenge has serious consequences – if there isn’t enough energy capacity available, then your customers will complain…but if you overload the system, you might blow your customers’ electrical equipment! In some cases, system operator companies (ISOs) may even have to pay their neighbors to get rid of the extra capacity!

As energy consumption continues to increase due to the increasing amount of electronics in the residential and commercial sectors, it’s critical to make a change that can benefit your business and track your energy effectively – no matter what kind – from generation, to transmission, to distribution and consumption.

First things first – what is a smart grid?

A smart grid gives ISOs the ability to balance their energy supply and demand – and most of this work happens automatically. For instance, instead of sending power plants a manual request for more (or less) energy, requests are sent over without anyone needing to manage them.

In addition, one of the major processes in place for ISOs is the trading system, which balances the grid for both themselves and other nearby ISOs on a larger scale. With the introduction of a smart grid, these platforms trade transmission capacity and energy itself automatically every day for the year ahead, with almost every process automated.

Smart grids can also help control the distribution network and guarantee reliable responses to outages. Thanks to the new generation of distribution and outage management (DMS) systems – an essential part of the smart grid – when an outage occurs, utility companies know exactly where it took place. These DMS systems are also self-healing, as they automatically re-route the energy to avoid the affected part of the grid, making the outage affect dramatically less people. And since the smart grid knows exactly where the outage occurred, repair teams receive automated work order notifications for the exact location and type of issue they have to fix.

Okay, why should I care?

At first glance, the smart grid may sound like a nice-to-have that helps automate processes…but as a business, you know it all comes down to costs, and smart grids massively decrease your business spend.

If you are aware of how much energy is necessary at both high and low points, you know how much infrastructure – from transformers, to substations, to the wires themselves – you need to both keep your customers happy and your costs low, potentially saving billions. As infrastructure development and maintenance is costly, it’s imperative to efficiently use all of it as much as possible to justify the cost.

Furthermore, smart grids are also highly reliable and help energy businesses adhere to strict regulations. In the case of harsh weather, numerous regulations exist that require the grid to be repaired very quickly. After all, if energy-dependent institutions such as hospitals or airports lose power and have no reserve, there could be major repercussions.

The future is filled with PROsumers

Contributing to the smart grid are individuals who generate their own renewable energy. Dubbed “prosumers”, they account for over 2% of the whole grid’s generation, and that number only continues to grow.

But while a worthy cause, many prosumers aren’t aware of their full potential. While they can generate their own energy, they can’t keep it – most of the time that energy is just sold to the grid. While over time the amount of energy sold could justify the price of a solar panel – say, after 10 years or so – it’s still an expensive endeavor for creating something you can’t keep. Yes, you could have a battery to store energy and keep it for when an outage occurs, but let’s take it a step further.

What’s next? The smart grid gets smarter

In the future, prosumers won’t just be able to generate and keep their own energy, but also trade it with their neighbors. Through the use of smart contracts, someone owning a wind turbine could securely trade energy to someone with a solar panel who has been struggling through cloudy days. This leads into a unique concept.

Virtual microgrids control their own energy generation, transmission and distribution on a small scale. Isolated islands and savvy communities that trade energy with each other via smart contracts can really benefit from their own grid, cutting out the costs of energy delivery completely. In addition, if you have your own microgrid, you can avoid major power outages that happen in the main grid. This could make a huge difference when in the midst of a natural disaster.

And in response to microgrids, energy storage will become a major factor, with even electric vehicles entering the fray. After all, why not use that battery for something useful as it sits in the garage? And the battery itself will evolve, being capable of storing massive amounts of energy. In a recent experiment, a liquid battery was created that could support the whole eastern side of Washington state for two whole days!

Lastly, I’ll address my first point. As the smart grid evolves, businesses will be able to control energy loads even for renewable sources, such as solar energy panels and electric vehicle batteries – yielding valuable cost savings.

In conclusion, the smart grid is already smart…but it wants to get smarter. Are you plugged in?

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