We read a great deal in the media and are involved in discussions about new sources of energy that can be both renewable and clean. So far there has been much less focus on new and more efficient approaches to managing the distribution of energy resources. Converting various forms of energy into electrical energy is the key to green energy. Our present grids for distributing electricity are generally about 50 years old and have difficulty keeping up with the jobs that they were designed to do.
Thomas Edison developed the first commercial system for the distribution of electrical power in 1882. In a bit over a century electrical power has made a steady movement toward supplanting older forms of energy generation. There is an important difference between electrical energy and many of the other forms of energy that are in common use. Fuels such as oil, natural gas, coal, etc. can be stored for future usage. Electricity is a much more dynamic form of energy and at this point the available means of storing it for future demand are very limited. The electrical grid is similar to a transportation network such as freeways. During certain times of a 24 hour day they are strained to maximum capacity. At other times they have a large surplus capacity.
It has become common practice to use a system of rolling blackouts on hot summer days when air conditioning demand pushes the system beyond its capacity. There have been several instances of widespread crashes of the grids. The existing infrastructure is inadequate to handle the present generation and distribution of electrical power. As we explore the possibilities of such innovations as electric automobiles, the demands on the system will only increase.
There are three phases involved in the production and use of electrical power: generation, transmission and distribution. Stepping up the voltage of the power for the transmission phase makes it possible to move it over long distances with minimal loss of power in the process. This is done with a transformer at the generating site. Transmission lines terminate at substations that use a transformer to step the current back down to an appropriate for for use by residential and industrial customers.
The US is divided into three interconnected power grids. One for the east and midwest, another for the west and one for Texas all by itself. The Texas grid was setup during WWII. For a more detailed explanation of how this came about,
This is what the present setup looks like.
The traditional approach to electrical power distribution has been that end users are passive recipients. You are connected to the grid. You turn on a light or your computer and you draw electricity from the grid. A meter records your usage and periodically someone from the power company comes around to read the meter and the data is used to generate a bill for your usage.
There is a broad range of new technologies under development that offer various prospects for improving the efficiency of our management and usage of electrical power. They are being lumped together under the term smart grid. The fundamental notion involved in the idea of a smart grid is combining the technology of the generation and distribution of electrical power with the technology of computer networks to provide the capacity for a network that is capable of advanced communication and control. A basic source of information is the website sponsored by the Federal Smart Grid Task Force.
Smart meters are a first step in the building of a smart grid, but by themselves do not create a smart grid. They incorporate the capacity for two way communication between power user and power company. They are presently being installed in a number of areas. Their immediate impact is to eliminate the need for meter readers since the meters can automatically report power usage. That makes their cost and installation attractive to power companies. They have the potential to do a number of other things. They have the potential to adjust power demand during peak periods and allow for adjustments less draconian than rolling blackouts. They could make it possible to establish variable rates which encourage people to shift usage to off peek hours. There is also a new generation of smart home appliances which can interact with them.
There is already some resistance to the installation of smart meters.
But the accuracy of smart meters - in particular, the ones used by PG&E's - has been called into question. Angry homeowners have complained that their utility bills soared after the new meters were installed. The California Public Utilities Commission started an investigation. And San Francisco's city attorney has asked the commission to halt PG&E's meter installations program until the investigation wraps up.
Widespread global use
The uproar troubles state officials and energy experts who say the meters could offer great benefits down the road. But those benefits depend on homeowners trusting the meters and using the information they provide.
One can but imagine how the same people will react when some bureaucrat cuts back their AC on a hot July day.
The vision of a fully integrated smart grid has much broader objectives. Our race to beat the consequences of global warming involves eliminating the carbon based sources of energy and reducing out total consumption of energy. The present power grid is an inefficient approach to energy management. In order to meet peak demand it must maintain a capacity greater than is needed at other times. More efficient means of management can reduce these requirements. There are several areas in which such development is being focused.
Integrated Communications Technologies
These fall into using broadband networks running over the power lines and the use of wireless networks.
Sensing and Measurement Technologies
Smart meters are the first step in this process. Utility monitoring systems are in various stages of development. There has been more progress in installation in distribution networks than in long distance transmission networks.
New Technologies to improve the transmission and storage of power.
A certain amount of this technology is already available is usable form. Others are in various stages of development. As with any form of technology there is a weeding out process to determine the specific forms that will be widely implemented. There are also a huge number of organizational and economic issues involved.
There is a huge conglomeration of people and organizations involved in the generation, transmission and distribution of electrical power in the US. It is a mixture of private investor owned companies, local state and federal power producers and government regulatory agencies. There is little organizational coherence or rationality to it. The great Enron scandal showed just how vulnerable it is to corrupt manipulation. New organizational and regulatory approaches will be necessary to develop a coherent approach to an advanced integrated smart grid.
The development, production and installation of all this new technology represents a really major economic investment. Federal and state governments have made some tentative beginnings in funding some planning and demonstration projects. They are pretty much a drop in the bucket in comparison to what needs to be done.
This diary has been a very general overview of a complex topic. It is a subject that I am interested in exploring and I plan to do some more witting about it.