Eli Forrester

Smart Grid 101: Part 1

The creation and expansion of the electric grid over the last century has been a leading contributor to the growth of the United States economy and the quality of American life. The electric grid is a remarkable achievement, allowing millions of users to access power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While this system has proven itself to be of irreplaceable importance to the comfort and growth of our country, it has become clear that the aging power grid of the twentieth century is ill suited to meet the needs of the twenty-first century. Our electric grid has remained virtually unchanged for a hundred years, and with the growing demand for reliable and affordable energy, the current system must undergo some critical upgrades. To address the increasing and evolving energy needs of the twenty-first century, the concept of the smart grid has emerged. The smart grid integrates existing and emerging technologies into a modern and vastly more efficient electric grid system. The key goals in creating a smart grid are to increase efficiency, reliability, and affordability.

The existing electrical grid is a basic and linear system that is lacking in communication capabilities and production flexibility. There is a general consensus among utility companies that the traditional grid system is no longer functioning at its optimal capacity in terms of efficiency, economy, or reliability. According to Black & Veatch’s annual utility survey,[1] based on input from 700+ participants, the number one concern in 2011 was aging infrastructure. There will need to be significant efforts to maintain the old infrastructure as well as to install the necessary new infrastructure in order to reach the goals and achieve the proper function of a smart grid.

Defining the Smart Grid:

The smart grid is a term used to describe a modernized version of the electric power grid. It uses information communication technology (ICT) to make the electric grid more flexible, reliable and efficient. It utilizes new technology and software to create an electricity network capable of real time communication between all points on the grid.

A simple representation of the smart grid. Photo: ConEdison

A simple representation of the smart grid. Photo: ConEdison

The smart grid includes a range of updates and additions to the existing grid system in order to drastically improve efficiency, reliability, and affordability. In the smart grid, renewable and alternative energy sources will be smoothly integrated, providing clean and reliable power to customers. Increasing the percentage of renewable energy on the grid will reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, creating a safer and more secure energy future. Much in the way that a smart phone is a traditional telephone with added computing function, the smart grid has the foundation of the power grid with modern upgrades from the conventional model. Each device on the network can be given sensors to gather data, plus two-way digital communication between the device in the field and the network’s operations center.

For a hundred years, utilities have relied on dispatching workers to read meters, measure voltage, and search for damaged or broken equipment. A key feature of the smart grid is automation technology that allows the utility to adjust and control each individual device or millions of devices from a central location. Much like the internet, the various devices and components in the smart grid will be linked together with communication paths and sensor nodes. These devices, along with several other groups of current and emerging technology define the various elements of the smart grid.

More on this in Part 2, where I will cover the elements of the smart grid, as well as the challenges and benefits of the smart grid.


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