While descriptions of Smart Grids vary based upon the exact set of features a particular implementation includes and its scale, the single defining and unifying characteristic of Smart Grids is the ability to constantly monitor changes in both the supply and demand of electricity by individual consumers and/or producers within the electrical grid and immediately respond to those changes in ways far exceeding the capabilities of today’s electrical grids. At a fundamental level, Smart Grids count among their advantages over today’s grids greatly increased efficiency, stability, and the potential for more integration and inclusion of a greater number of devices. More broadly, Smart Grids are at once the framework for and inseparable from various technological advantages that greatly increase our ability to manage electricity, from its generation to its eventual consumption.
The application of technological advantages is at the heart of Smart Grid initiatives, seeking to fill the gap between when electric grids were first built and the advances that have since been embraced by modern electronics.
First, an extensive network of automated meters capable of instant and constant communication is required. Such a network provides extraordinary amounts of data, providing both consumers and producers with up-to-date information on their own involvement in the grid as well as information about the grid as a whole. Aside from the intrinsic value of information and the insights gained from its analysis, the wealth of data serves as a prerequisite for other advancements.
Interactivity is a major facet of the Smart Grid as well. While technologies already exist that can be used to respond to changes in the state of electrical grids, they are in many cases hindered by the time delay between when a change occurs and when information about it is dispersed. Other mechanisms aren’t automated and instead rely on human operators, further slowing the process down. Alternatively, some fully automated mechanisms only function locally, cut off from the grid as a whole. Automated mechanisms, when coupled with timely and accurate information furnished by the network of intercommunication intrinsic to a Smart Grid, bring an unprecedented level of to both grid operators and consumers, reacting to changing grid conditions as soon as they occur if not preemptively.
Another major benefit of the Smart Grid is in the increased integration with various power production and storage methods. As the Smart Grid is better able to react to changes in supply and demand, it is therefore also better able to integrate additional sources of supply and demand. Coinciding with the spread of distributed power generation, the use of intermittent energy sources, and increasingly efficient methods of storing energy, the Smart Grid is well equipped to maximize the effectiveness of these rapidly expanding technologies.
Together, these three features lead to significant benefits when considering the economics and stability of an electrical grid. Economically, Smart Grids offer savings to both grid operators and consumers by increasing efficiency, decreasing operating costs, reducing the amount of infrastructure necessary to deal with peak demand, utilizing already existing distributed electrical production and energy storage more extensively, and opening the door to better pricing schemes.
Through the level of analysis of and immediate response to grid conditions made possible by a Smart Grid, stability is greatly improved. The amount and frequency of updated data allows problematic areas to be identified quickly, with responses ranging from the triggering of automatic mechanisms that resolve the issue, alerting repairmen to the scene if necessary, or, in extreme cases, sectioning off severely damaged areas to prevent further damage from spreading to surrounding areas. Key among these mechanisms is Demand Response, a collection of technologies capable of adjusting consumer-side supply and demand in response to changes in the grid. Additionally, while generally operating in response to regularly occurring or unintentional issues, the same mechanisms are applicable in mitigating damage in the face of malicious attacks by an outside party.
Obstacles and Resolutions
Nevertheless, the Smart Grid has its obstacles. Primary among these is cost; though plentiful technology already exists, rolling it out over large scales represents a significant initial expense. Currently, Smart Grids, even those of limited scope and scale, have already demonstrated substantial economic benefits, with broader implementations leading to respectively broader savings.
Additionally, as the entire concept of the Smart Grid, many components communicating and interacting with each other, depends on those components actually being able to communicate and interact with each other, the implementation of any large scale Smart Grid requires sufficiently planned out standardization and the rigorous enforcement thereof.
Lastly, there are significant social concerns. As the Smart Grid allows for ever more precise manipulations in electrical supply, the potential for abuse is a point of consideration. More problematically, the Smart Grid produces and utilizes highly personalized information and, unless paired with strong measures assuring the privacy of its users, the Smart Grid’s greatest advantage becomes its greatest disadvantage. Standards and laws addressing this concern should be fleshed out prior to significant financial investments and infrastructural development, leaving customers with the best of both worlds; a technologically advanced Smart Grid and their privacy.
Smart Grids represent the next step for electric grids, revolutionizing their infrastructure while still keeping and putting to use much of what has already been built. While initially expensive, Smart Grids lead to savings that, over the long term, significantly outweigh the initial investment required, going on to offer a multitude of other, non-economic benefits for everybody involved, as well as setting the stage for further improvements. Though obstacles certainly remain, standardization and policies must be agreed upon and funding must be secured, Smart Grids are a nigh-inevitable fixture of a nation’s development.
Click to see an ANSI press release discussing recent developments in the Smart Grid standardization effort. This is the first article in a series about Smart Grids, each of which can be read independently.
The second article explains the generation of electricity.
The third article goes into greater detail about Smart Grid features.
The fourth article delves into Demand Response and its economic effects.
Also, a previously published and updated list of standards for Smart Grid Interoperability.