By Davis Wax
While we can often take our 21st-century technology for granted, whether it is the next smartphone, laptop or means of digital storage, there is at least one area such innovation has failed to revolutionize: today’s electric grid system.
Calling it “today’s grid” is even a bit of a misnomer, since the present grid technology is really the system of Thomas Edison’s early 20th century, one which has been retooled and tuned over time but never fully reinvisioned.
Because we ask so little of the technology, longer lifespans for equipment, while inefficient, become possible. Seventy percent of U.S. transmission lines and power transformers are reaching 25 years in age, while 60 percent of the country’s circuit breakers are over 30 years old, according to a 2012 study by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
These devices take electricity through a simple, one-way path, like a water’s journey downstream. Energy is generated in a power plant and transmitted over long distance-high voltage lines.
That high voltage is then allowed to “step down” at another transformer into lower voltages, a form of energy that can be transmitted to local utilities, lowered in voltage again, and distributed in cascades to businesses, residential homes and city parks, which receive electricity at 120 to 240 volts.
Electricity then arrives at its final destination, entering a delta of homes. Here the energy meets demand. But it is consumed whether or not a light bulb left on or electronics left plugged in are actually being used, and there are few devices in place to capture and store the energy we don’t need.
The downstream-only design of the grid has a number of limitations, perhaps most noticeably is its inability to quickly detect obstructions from storms or accidents, making it difficult to reroute the flow of electricity to unaffected lines. Instead, we get massive blackouts like the 2003 event across Canada and the Northeastern U.S., when a single failure caused oscillations in the transmission system to overload and leave an entire region powerless.
The civil engineers’ report also predicted that while U.S. investments in today’s grid would reach nearly $566 billion by 2020, there will still be a shortfall of $107 billion if utilities are to adequately support future demand.
While there are ways to help lower future demand, the ever-increasing cost of an outdated system points to the need for a smarter way of controlling how we apportion out our energy.
“A good analogy for the smart grid is to think of the internet as people were thinking about it in the 1980s,” says Dr. Ewan Pritchard, associate director of FREEDM at North Carolina State University. FREEDM is a research center created by the National Science Foundation in 2008 to pursue ways renewable energy can be integrated into the grid system.
“Shrinking the size of technology and sharing data was the goal in the 80s,” he says. As an end-product of this connectivity, though, no one would have guessed the multi-billion dollar search engine tool Google.
Similarly, a true smart grid will allow a complete sharing experience, Dr. Pritchard says. Smart appliances will gauge collective energy use and schedule when to power on and off to fit homeowners’ needs. Smart meters will provide both the user and the utility the convenience of hourly rates.
Two-way communication will become possible, where the system detects faults more readily and transmission automatically reroutes to prevent the domino-effect of a blackout.
“We don’t truly know the value of the smart grid yet,” says Dr. Pritchard, “but we know it’s huge.” One asset FREEDM believes could be valuable is the equivalent of an internet “router” for the grid.
“This would work like a traffic light, telling the grid when to use power and when to turn it off,” he says. Instead of having an ice maker always make ice, for instance, a homeowner could set it to make a number of cubes in the minutes leading up to when he or she returns home.
Another technology that would be helpful would be a direct current box for homes, something which FREEDM is working to develop.
Electricity enters households as alternating current. Devices such as smartphones, TVs and laptops which run on direct current need special inverters (visible with computers and cellphones as power cord adapters) to change the AC from the outlet into DC, a process which is about 85 percent efficient. A DC box in a home would allow today’s electronic gadgets to receive the direct current they need without jumping through the hoop of converting from AC.
This technology would also allow solar arrays to save 35 percent of the energy lost to inverters and an electric car could charge from the same source. Batteries could be included in these transformers to store energy.
Another smart grid plan in the Southeast is the Kentucky Road Map Initiative, a project electrical engineering professor Dr. Yuan Liao has worked on for the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville since 2010. This research project began with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, with the goal of evaluating the state’s current grid system.
Final findings from the Road Map report recommend consumers limit their power usage during peak demand times — the hours of the day when the energy load on the grid is highest (usually mid-day) — by being sure to run energy-heavy units like dishwashers and laundry machines in the evening.
Another issue is that more power plants have to be built to meet demand if it happens to jump further up. Therefore, using less energy during the afternoon can actually prevent more polluting energy generation from ever needing to occur.
The biggest recommendation from the report, however, is to simply spread awareness of the need for smarter technology. “What we need is better policy encouraging the use of advancements in the grid,” says Dr. Liao.
As examples like the Kentucky Roadmap Initiative and FREEDM’s ongoing research at N.C. State show, the Southeast is poised to be a leader in this developing field.
According to a recent report from The Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan institute dedicated to improving the nation’s quality of life, regional initiatives include General Electric’s Smart Grid Technology Center in Atlanta, an educational initiative, and Duke Energy’s ongoing $700 million project to expand technology to the grid in North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.
Potential savings for the region through the implementation of a smart grid are estimated at $41 billion annually by 2020 and $71 billion annually by 2030, as well as 13 to 17 percent lower electricity rates compared to current projections for 2030. An estimated 20 billion gallons of water to be used by power plants by 2030 also could be saved, cutting current projected use in half.
According to GreenTech Media, North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park currently has nearly 60 companies working on smart grid research. Smart meter companies like Elster and Sensus employ as many as 1,000 people.
However, the American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy found in its 2012 annual survey that no southern states were in the top ten for energy efficiency policies and actions. Tennessee, Florida, and North Carolina did come in around the middle and could be leaders in the Southeast.
While the potential for smart grid advancements in the region look promising, the Southeast will only benefit if the proper investments are made both in the realms of funding and research.
Appalachia, one of the last regions to acquire electric power, cannot afford to fare similarly with the smart grid if it hopes to benefit from fewer risks of blackouts, more electric bill savings, and more efficient energy use.
By seizing intelligent control over how our electricity is transmitted and distributed, we can quench future power demands with less energy — a crucial ability in an increasingly populated world.
To find out more about smart grid technologies and how you can prepare for their integration, check out smartgrid.gov.
In today’s grid (left), electricity is generated from coal, gas, hydro or nuclear and transmitted over long distances through high-voltage power lines. The voltage is then “stepped down” at a substation for distribution. From there, electricity enters homes and businesses, with little technology for storage or two-way communication.
In tomorrow’s grid (right), two-way communication is key. Electricity from renewables is more aggressively involved, and storage batteries dot the system. Residential technologies like electric vehicles and home solar energy become increasingly integrated into a trackable, more accountable system. Smart meters will inform both homes and utilities of hourly use so residents can better understand their energy consumption and save money during times of peak demand. Overseeing this improved system is a computer network able to send and receive information on the grid instantly, with state-of-the-art cyber security protections in place.
Images courtesy of EPRI