Smart Grids Momentum Surges

02/20/2008 | By Lew Tagliaferre

If the clustering of news around a particular topic is the sign of a trend (and I think it is), then one must be aware that the momentum toward a “Smart Grid” has dramatically increased in the past few months. The term means different things to different people; until a final definition emerges, let’s say that a Smart Grid is an electrical system that enables both buyers and sellers of power to automatically control their roles for the improved bottom lines of both.

Underlying this trend is the digital technology and new products that will enable automatic, two-way communication between the electrical appliance and the generator. The Smart Grid has to be automatically controlled because the mergers of electric systems into larger and larger regions, and the additions of so many independent generators and renewable sources, which all must be precisely synchronized at 60Hz (cycles per second), have grown beyond the ability of human operators to control it all. The electric-power system in the United States consists of more than 9,200 electric generating units, with more than 950,000 megawatts of generating capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines (more than 210,000 miles of the transmission lines are rated at 230 kilovolts [kV] or higher). In addition, approximately 150 control centers manage the flow of electricity through the system. If that sounds a bit scary, welcome to your future.

As in many areas, electrical-control technology seems to be taking on a life of its own. Think of the airline pilot who punches in his destination at takeoff and sits back to let the GPS navigation system take him there. It works great as long as it works, but where is the back-up plan in case there is a system malfunction? Does anyone in the cockpit recall how to do celestial navigation or read the radio navigation charts? I know a captain who does some part-time work from his laptop as the plane flies on GPS autopilot. That illustrates, as I see it, the danger in the present rush to an automated smart electrical grid.

Some of the push for this trend comes from the “success” of the telecommunications options over the past decade or so. A recent Smart Grid advocacy white paper from IBM observed, “The telecomm industry was once nearly as regulated as the electric-power industry. It was transformed in the early 1980s by policy changes and legal decisions that opened up competition. Within a decade, consumers had 10 times the choices they had before. Today, urban-dwelling consumers can choose between cable companies, local providers, cell-phone companies, long-distance providers, and voice-over-IP services. They can receive calls on a variety of land phones, roam phones, cell phones, computer-attached phones, PBXs, and satellite phones.”

Choosing the best thing to hang in your ear is a challenge to many folks who feel overwhelmed with the changes. Some providers have found a gold mine in communications equipment and services, while others are squeezed by the competition until they can no longer keep up. Video cameras used to require a large tripod and technicians to operate; now they come in the handset used by your average grade-schooler. The advocates of these changes claim that they are good for both the consumers and the investors who succeed in leading-edge development. They have enabled new connections between people that are transparent to the users who are free to concentrate on the results at either end. The same kinds of claims are being made for the emerging Smart Grid technology.

An analysis of the IBM white paper quote noted earlier, made by the, was posted as follows:

IBM acknowledges that the Smart Grid is the foundation for all this change, allowing demand response, efficiency, and other programs that give customers more choice. Combined with rising energy costs and climate-change concerns, Smart Grid technology is radically redefining the relationship between utilities and their customers. As a result, says IBM:

  • Demand management will expand dramatically.
  • Self generation will make tremendous inroads.
  • Meaningful consumer switching (between utilities) will emerge in most competitive markets.
  • Business models will be a stark departure from a decades-old value chain.

That’s pretty radical. Yet, IBM believes that the coming era of customer choice can be a good thing for utilities that embrace it. Utilities prepared to share responsibilities with customers will have a significant competitive advantage, the white paper predicts. Technology now makes Smart Grid and customer choice possible. More and more policymakers want these things. Customers want them. Forward-thinking vendors (such as IBM) are gearing up for it. Progressive utilities are building out their pilot projects. Can you say inevitable?

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