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Smart Grid Technology: Upgrading the U.S. Electric Grid

Unlike the traditional electric grid, a smart grid is able to read, adapt and react to changes in supply and demand along their supply lines.

We’re lucky these days if a high-tech phone, computer or tablet lasts about four years. But the U.S. electric grid that powers these devices was introduced more than 130 years ago. Built in the 1890s, the grid made its debut when the highest-tech gadgets consisted of the radio, the phonograph and incandescent lamps. While the technology of our electronics has skyrocketed, the technology of the grid has not.

Sure, the grid may have gotten regular updates over the decades, but it’s becoming increasingly tough for it to meet our current demands across the board. What it really needs is a complete transformation, a transition to smart grid technology.

What are smart grid technologies?

Smart devices are called “smart” because they’re able to read, adapt and react to the environment in which they are being used. That same concept applies to a smart grid.

Unlike the traditional electric grid which simply shuttles electricity from the main power plant along transmission lines to the end users, the smart grid is actually able to read, adapt and react to changes in supply and demand along those supply lines.

Smart grids are made up of various computers, controls and equipment, along with advanced technologies that allow them to sense and respond to a change in electric demand. Some of these technologies include:

  • Wide-area situational awareness
  • Advanced metering infrastructure
  • Distributed energy resources and storage
  • Demand response
  • Distribution grid management

Wide-Area Situational Awareness (WASA)

Wide-area situational awareness is basically giving smart grid operators a detailed bird’s-eye view of everything that’s going on with large areas of the grid at any given time.

This would allow them to constantly monitor and make changes within the grid to avoid potential problems while ensuring everything runs as efficiently and effectively as possible. WASA is possible through sensors known as phasor measurement units.

Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI)

Advanced metering infrastructure refers to a high-tech system that includes components like smart meters. Instead of having a meter that simply reads your electrical usage, smart grids can give you one that supplies pertinent information between you and the utility company, mainly:

  • How much electricity you use
  • When you use electricity
  • How much the electricity costs

With this two-way communication in place, smart grid technology may be able to do things like:

  • Allow us to use mobile apps or other devices to remotely control our electricity use
  • Provide pricing based on the time of day you use electricity
  • Estimate how much electricity you’re going to use
  • Automatically detect issues and outages
  • Automatically detect losses or possible theft
  • Pay our bills or set up payment plans through the metering infrastructure

Distributed Energy Resources and Storage (DER)

Distributed energy refers to energy sources located on the customer side of the equation. In the traditional system, energy is typically generated from a centralized location on the provider side of the meter.

DER takes smaller, customer-side resources into account, such as rooftop solar panels and community solar farms. DER storage enables the energy to be stored for later use.

DER works using bi-directional inverters and DC-charged batteries. It can help with:

  • Balancing energy generation, supply and demand
  • Reducing usage during peak hours
  • Shifting loads to avoid overloading certain areas
  • Regulating voltage and supplying back-up power
  • Integrating renewable resources into the grid

Demand Response (DR)

Demand response programs are designed to encourage us to reduce our demand for electricity during high-use periods. They typically have two ways to achieve this:

  • Price-based DR: This involves adjusting our electricity use based on how much electricity costs at different times of the day. Peak usage periods would have higher rates.
  • Incentive-based DR: Here the electricity supplier would offer us incentives to use less electricity during peak usage periods.

Distribution Grid Management

The distribution grid is the portion of the electric grid that delivers the energy from the transmission lines to its destination. Managing this grid involves having a distribution intelligence system that can collect, analyze and even react to information from the poles, wires, switches, transformers and other distribution grid components.

Rather than calling the electric company to report an outage, distribution grid intelligence would automatically alert the company of an outage so they could send repair crews to the exact location.

Why smart grid technology is necessary for the future

If simply knowing our existing grid made its debut in 1890 isn’t enough to convince you that smart grid technology is a must, perhaps a list of its benefits will. Instead of cobbling new components onto an outdated and aging system, smart grid technology would strengthen, transform and improve our entire energy infrastructure.

Modernization of the electric grid would:

  • Improve the efficiency of electricity transmission
  • Speed up the response, repair and restoration time after power outages
  • Reduce overloads and other issues that may lead to outages
  • Decrease the cost of management and operations for utility companies, which could lower electricity rates for customers
  • Reduce electricity demand during peak hours, which could help lower electricity rates even further
  • Ensure access to reliable, secure and clean sources of energy
  • Allow for more and larger integrations of renewable energy systems
  • Allow for more and larger integration of power generation systems owned or used by customers, such as solar panels and community solar programs

Smart grid technology is likewise designed to prevent future issues.

On the traditional grid, even a small power outage can lead to a series of failures that result in a large-scale blackout. On a smart grid, grid technologies can automatically kick into play, rerouting power while detecting and isolating outages before they impact other areas.

Smart technology would help ensure electricity is recovered quickly after an outage, and it would also help it be recovered strategically. Electricity would be restored first to emergency services, hospitals and other organizations and facilities that need it most.

Because it’s able to draw power from customer-owned sources, such as solar panels and generators, smart technology could also keep a city’s essential resources going during a large-scale outage or emergency. This can include phone systems, gas stations, police and fire stations, grocery stores and health centers.

If a national emergency were to hit, disrupting power throughout the entire country, smart technology would enable us to tap into our home-grown electricity to keep things up and running as needed.

The ability to easily use and incorporate renewable resources into the smart grid has the added benefit of ensuring we’ll have electricity for as long as the sun shines or the wind blows—without the worry of running out.

Smart grid infographic
Source: Science Direct

Smart grid vs traditional electricity grid

As the traditional electricity grid gets older, and the use of renewable resources becomes more desirable, it becomes apparent that smart grid technology is more than an interesting idea. It’s rapidly becoming a necessity.

  Smart Grid  Traditional Grid 
Technology Smart digital technology that’s able to communicate between devices, automate functions, self-regulate and allow for remote control Electromechanical, which consists of mechanical devices run by electricity, also known as “dumb” or analog technology 
 Distribution  Two-way distribution. Electricity can travel between the power station and customer in either direction One-way distribution, with electricity traveling from the power station to the customer
 Power Generation  Distributed, with power coming from multiple plants, substations and sources as desired Central, with power coming from a primary location
Sensors Many sensors, which can help pinpoint problems for rapid electricity rerouting or repair  Few sensors, as the infrastructure was not designed for distributed monitoring
Monitoring Self-monitoring through digital technology Manual monitoring
Control Sensors and other technologies allow companies to monitor and control the distribution of power from the plant all the way to the customers Companies have no control of where power goes once it leaves the plant
Outages Smart technology can reroute electricity to go around problem areas, limiting the area impacted by outages  Aging and limited equipment is prone to failure that lead to large-scale blackouts 
Repair and Restoration Sensors can detect and troubleshoot line problems without technicians, pinpoint infrastructure problems for rapid technician response Technicians need to physically go to locations for all repairs, locations reported by customers calling in the outage
Renewable and Alternative Energy  Renewable and alternative energy sources can easily come into the grid, giving customers more choices on how they receive their electricity 

Renewable and alternative energy sources need to be separated from the traditional grid infrastructure and power plants, limiting choices and options

The smart grid and renewable energy

While renewable energy sources can be connected to the traditional grid—referred to as a grid-connected renewable energy system—the process is not simple. It’s not easy for the resources to be integrated into the aging infrastructure, and it’s not easy for customers who want their renewable resources connected.

Specific requirements vary by state, community, and power company, but you can expect to jump through multiple hoops. Customers may be expected to:

  • Purchase additional equipment that transmits your load to the grid, such as meters, instruments, safety and power conditioning equipment
  • Meet all safety and power quality requirements set for by your power provider
  • Meet guidelines for equipment installation, operation and manufacturing, with some states requiring “precertification” for specific models of equipment
  • Sign an interconnection agreement with power providers
  • Carry liability insurance, in some cases insurance that indemnifies the power provider for any potential loss, damage or injury caused by your system
  • Pay fees and other charges related to permitting, inspection, engineering, additional metering, and stand-by costs to offset the power company’s cost of maintaining your system as a backup power source
  • Complete extensive amounts of paperwork
  • Enter a metering and rate arrangement, which is the agreement that covers the rate and method by which the power provider purchases your excess power.

Some providers may only purchase excess power at wholesale rates, while still charging you retail rates for any power you use from them. Excess power may or may not be allowed to be carried over from month to month throughout the year. Any excess power you provided by the end of the year is forfeited back to the power company.

In addition to the litany of requirements that could stop individual customers from moving forward with the idea of connecting their renewable resources to the grid, there is also the issue of geography.

Larger-scale renewable resources, such as solar and wind, are typically located in remote or rural areas. The greatest demand for electricity is in urban and highly populated areas. The current grid simply doesn’t have a way to move electricity long distances efficiently.

Smart grid to the rescue

The smart grid brings in a veritable “electric superhighway” that can easily and efficiently move electricity across great distances as needed.

Not only would it readily accommodate the integration of solar, wind and other variable energy sources, but it would make them easier and more efficient to use. Advanced tools would allow:

  • Grid operators to reduce power demand when solar or wind power decreases
  • Greater storage capabilities to absorb excess solar and wind power when it’s not needed
  • Releasing of stored energy when solar and wind power dips

With the ability to transport power great distances as well as store and release excess energy as desired, the smart grid would help smooth out the variables that can occur with renewable resources. Energy produced by solar and wind power would be able to serve even cloudy locations on non-windy days.

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Examples of smart grid technology in use

If you count smart meters as smart grid technologies in use, nearly 50% of all U.S. electricity customers had a smart meter in their home as of 2017. While that’s a good start, smart meters are only a tiny slice of the entire smart grid technology pie.

Grid modernization activity is happening in 38 states and the District of Columbia, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2020 Smart Grid System Report. That activity includes launching smart grid technologies, using distributed energy resources, or both.

One example is the Smart Grid Program in New York, currently in the research and development stages. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is reviewing proposals to provide funding for initiatives to transform a statewide smart grid into reality.

In other parts of the world, Thailand is working to enhance the operation, maintenance and management of its energy generation plants using smart grid technologies and data optimization. The project aims to analyze massive amounts of data in real-time through artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities.

The data analysis, in turn, will allow the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) to optimize its electricity generation systems, detect issues before they turn into problems, and meet the increasing energy demand.

Questions about the smart power grid

For a quick round of takeaways, check out the top questions about the smart power grid.

Why are smart grids good for the environment?

Smart grids are good for the environment because they can easily integrate electricity generated from clean, renewable, reliable sources of energy. This becomes even more important as a replacement for electricity generated by fossil fuels, which pollute the environment and will eventually run out.

While the traditional grid can incorporate renewable resources to a certain extent, it’s with great difficulty and hassle.

What kind of energy do smart grids use?

One of the major benefits of smart grids is their ability to use a wide variety of energy sources. While the traditional grid was designed to transport electricity generated by fossil fuels from the power plant to the customer, the smart grid can transport electricity generated from a range of sources in either direction throughout the grid.

These sources can include nuclear energy as well as electricity generated from renewable resources, such as solar and wind.

What technologies are used in smart grids?

Smart grids are made up of a conglomeration of equipment, computers and machines with technologies that enable them to read, adapt and react to changes in the supply, demand and distribution of electricity.

These can include, but are not limited to, advanced metering infrastructure, demand response, and wide-area situational awareness. They may also include distributed energy resources and storage and distribution grid management.

Are there smart grids in the US?

Smart grid technologies are used across the nation, with grid modernization activities happening in 38 states and the District of Columbia. These activities involve using smart grid technologies and/or distributed energy resources.

The Smart Grid Program in New York is a prime example, with funding available for organizations that can help transform a statewide smart grid into reality.

In addition, nearly 50% of all U.S. electricity customers had smart meters in their homes as of 2017.

Get smart, grid

With its range of benefits across the board, including the ability to integrate renewable energy resources, the smart grid may sound like something that should have been in place years ago.

It is, however, a massive undertaking with a lot of moving parts—millions of them, to be exact. All the new computers, power lines, controls, equipment and technologies still need to be perfected, installed and tested before put into use.

Modernizing the electric grid is not something that can be done in one fell swoop, either. It needs to move forward with logical and steady progress over a number of years.

The good news is that progress is already moving in the smart grid direction, with a cleaner, more efficient, and more economical way of generating and using electricity on the horizon.

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