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Internet of Things Part 8: Smart Grids - The Future of Energy Delivery

By Don DeLoach • March 25, 2014

This is the eighth in the series on the Top 10 areas to probe when considering the Internet of Things.

From Fitbits to Fords, the buzz around the Internet of Things (IoT) these days is largely focused on the consumer side of things and the benefits to the individual. Somewhat less discussed, but no less poised to make an impact is smart energy delivery. Most equate smart energy delivery to smart meters. Again, consumer focused. Smart meters are cool (why would Google by Nest if it wasn’t?), and play an important role in the delivery of smart energy solutions. Having a smart meter wholly embody the representation of a smart grid is like have the dashboard embody the representation of the car. I want to focus this discussion on the broader energy grid and specifically the electric grid, (noting that a more holistic discussion will extend to all energy, not just electricity). There is only so much you can address in a short 42-page blog, right?

Much like the Internet of Things as a whole, a smart grid is about balance. It is about efficiency. It is about dynamically adjusting and re-adjusting to optimally deliver energy at the lowest cost and highest quality possible.

The current power grid in the United States had been in place since the early to mid 1900’s. It’s old. According to the American Academy of Engineering it is also considered to be the most “significant engineering achievement of the 20th century.” It is the largest interconnected machine on the planet with 9200 electric generating units, over one million megawatts of generating capacity, and over 300,000 miles of transmission lines. Impressively, the Department of Energy  states the American power grid is 99,7% reliable. (I highly recommend checking out “Smart Grid: An Introduction”, as a basic primer).

Why Do We Need a Smart Grid?

If this marvel of engineering is so good and so reliable, why do we need a smart grid? I think there are three primary answers to that question:

  1. “Good” seldom insinuates that you can’t be “better”, and in this case, a smart grid can be “much better”.
  2. Notwithstanding the naysayers, there are limitations on most of the energy resources on Earth, and we are beginning to better understand that. As such, we are learning to appreciate the value of better and more efficiently consume our energy resources and incorporate sustainable forms of energy into our lives. Smart grids can better accommodate these needs.
  3. We all want to live in a more comfortable fashion, but not without going broke along the way. Smart grids hold the promise of enabling greater comfort without requiring greater expense; at least long term.

A smart grid is an energy delivery system that moves from a centrally controlled system, like we have today, to a more consumer driven, iterative system relying on bi-directional communication to constantly adapt and tune the delivery of energy. Through adaptation and tuning, especially at granular levels, greater amounts of energy can be delivered at the right time and at the best price. A smart grid includes many components, including a broad range of sophisticated sensors (over 20 specific types of sensors are used from the power generation unit to the meter into your residence). These components are constantly assessing the state of the grid, the availability of power flowing into the grid, and the demand on the grid. They are also capable of collecting a vast amount of this information over time, to determine what “behaviors” can be changed to optimize energy delivery.

Energy Delivery and Peak Demand

The most important concept in the delivery of electricity is peak demand. For example, when it is really hot outside, everyone runs their air conditioner. They also go to the refrigerator to grab a drink and then wash those dishes.  Since it’s so hot outside, they may as well get something done inside, so why not throw a load of laundry in the washing machine and turn on the TV? All of this spikes the demand challenging utilities to keep up (and sometimes they can’t keep up). Even when they meet peak demand, it is at a great cost. Entire power plants are built to handle peak capacity. In fact, one approach that has been used for years is to build “pumped storage plants”.  That’s utility parlance for a plant that pumps water up so they can run water down to spin a turbine that generates electricity. The laws of physics would suggest it takes more energy to pump the water up than it generates on the way down. So why do it? They pump the water up during “off peak” hours, where there is excess electricity on the grid, and they run the turbines during peak load conditions to meet this excess demand.

A smart grid has the net effect of offering consumers the ability to participate in the solution. In essence, we all become the pumped storage plant by agreeing to control mechanisms that run our dishwashers and laundry when the system demand is less, ostensibly in the middle of the night. It may also employ techniques to run the air conditioner at slightly reduced levels with resulting savings in both consumption and cost. These approaches holistically reach to a very granular level to balance resources that previously have only been possible through central control with far less precision.

Making this possible are various component technologies that do everything from monitor the vibration on the transmission line to the meter going into your house. Phasor measurement Units (PMU’s) are becoming the “health meter” for the grid, where the amount of information collected on the status of the grid will be close to 100 times more dense than what is collected today. Just imagine seeing a picture with 100 times the clarity!

Smart Grids and the Future of Energy Delivery

While the smart meter is not the grid itself, it is certainly an important component and are likely to be based on open standards internationally. This will allow energy pricing to be based on the cost to deliver at a very granular level, offering a wider range of options on how and when we consume energy. This will be further enhanced by leveraging the underlying data collection for machine learning. The more we “tell our household” what we want, the more those desires can be intelligently incorporated into the grid.

Smart grids are happening. How we produce, deliver, and consume energy will most certainly change for the better. While there will be battles, the standards will evolve. Some countries will be more progressive than others. Something like this takes time and money. Sometimes they also take the political will to invest in the future.

Make no mistake, this is the future.

Get Bloor Group’s whitepaper ‘Exploiting the Internet of Things’.

 

Read the next blog in the Internet of Things Blog Series: Mobile Health and the Internet of Things

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