As the effects of climate change become more drastic, the need for a shift to cleaner alternatives and adaptive steps takes center stage. However, a relatively new frontier is starting to take shape, gaining prominence and importance. This is the shift from traditional electrical grid networks to a more intelligent network called the ‘smart grid.’ This technology utilizes sensors, Advanced Monitoring Systems (AMIs), communication networks, smart grid management, and Distributed Energy Resources (DER) to increase energy efficiency, minimize costs, reduce demand peaks, lower power cuts, power renewable energy systems, and allow data management.
Conventional grids vs smart grids
The fundamental difference between conventional grids and smart grids is the communication. Smart grids boast bidirectional communication, enabling various components like consumers, producers, sensors, and meters to communicate. This benefits many fronts as real-time monitoring, control, and management become easier. Communication between all the stakeholders increases the reliability and resilience of the grid, which traditional grids lack.
|Traditional grid||Smart grid|
|One-way Communication||Bidirectional Communication|
|Centralized Power Generation||Distributed Power Generation|
|A radial system of network||Distributed Network|
|Manual Processes are necessary||Automatic Repair and Control are possible|
Our traditional grids have a radial topology, with only one centralized power source for every customer. As such, in case of a blackout or power cut, every single consumer has to suffer because there are no alternatives. However, the grid network in smart grids is distributed across power generators and utility companies, creating a harmonious ecosystem where energy is supplied as necessary.
Distributed Energy Resources
DERs are decentralized, small-scale energy generation systems gaining traction with the transition to renewables. These systems often act in a mini-grid infrastructure, generating renewable energy and disseminating it to the consumers. Usually, DERs are situated close to the consumers using them. One of the most prominent examples of DER is Tesla Energy’s solar roofs, which generate real-time electricity and provide energy to the house.
Other Distributed Energy Resources include wind turbines, energy storage systems (like batteries, pumped hydro stations), electric Vehicles, biogas, and biomass systems, etc. Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems that produce electricity and heat simultaneously from a single energy source are also promising DERs.
A smart grid connects all these microelements into it. Unlike the traditional grid structure, the smart grid is not limited to the power-generating plant but all the PV solar panels or wind turbines in a particular region. A distributed system ensures that the load is distributed correctly and maximum energy efficiency is obtained.
Data and automation
As mentioned earlier, smart grids require smart meters to be installed. This ensures the storage and utilization of telematic and timely data from each consumer. Smart meters also enable data collection regarding energy wastage, peak hours, and energy use patterns. All of these data are transmitted in real-time to the main grid. This bidirectional communication ensures the real-time production and consumption of energy since the main grid would produce the needed energy at any given moment. This reduces system losses associated with storing energy.
Smart grids are also automated to a great extent, able to respond to emergencies without manual intervention. With the application of machine learning and the IoT, the need for manual intervention during emergencies may be completely cut off, as a specific grid will be able to understand and utilize past data to perform better in future instances.
Self-healing and repair
In the event of a disruption, smart grids can solve it independently. It can detect anomalies using meters and sensors. After initial detection, the grid isolates the faulty part with intelligent switches and protective devices. Then, the grid works to reroute power to the affected consumers immediately, whether via the energy storage systems or DERs. The smart grid employs sophisticated decision-making algorithms using real-time and past data to deal with new situations, and the technology is only getting better with recent advancements in machine learning.
Smart grid implementation
China, the USA, Germany, and Japan are the most advanced in implementing smart meters and integrated grid technology. China, especially, leads in implementing advanced metering infrastructure, whereas the USA aims to reach 100% smart meter penetration by the next decade. Germany is leading the change in Europe, while Japan, Canada, Sweden, and Australia are all actively trying to integrate renewables into their grid through the smart grid.
While the upfront costs of transitioning to a smart grid infrastructure are high, increased energy efficiency and resilience give benefits many fold the original costs. A US research organization named Electric Power Research Institute estimates that at the cost of US$338 to 476 billion for a complete transition to a smart grid, the US may save up to US$2 trillion in energy costs in the next decade.
Smart grids can save anywhere from 5% to 20% of energy by utilizing demand-side management, grid loss reduction, and power quality improvements.
The road ahead
Smart grids make integrating distributed renewable energy sources into our energy sector easier. It enables communication, better energy efficiency, and usage. Researchers are trying to achieve an open energy market where every stakeholder in an expansive grid is an active load and can buy and sell the market as necessary. Suppose house A has solar roofs and generates more energy than it needs, while house B requires additional energy during peak hours. Thus, house B can buy that energy from house A, ensuring maximum energy utilization and economic profit.
There’s a long road to this theoretical model of optimal energy usage, production, and distribution. The promise of AI and IoT does exacerbate our visions regarding how our future grids may look. Nevertheless, by taking incremental steps now, we can make our current grid much smarter, more operable, and transparent, reducing wastage and carbon footprint.
Sabit Ibtisam Anan is a passionate researcher of Climate Finance, Fintech, and Gender-Based Violence. Reach him at [email protected]