Smart grids: Building smarter solutions for a more efficient future
Smart grids are the ultimate no-brainer solution for the sensible use of electricity, the commodity that makes our hyperconnected world possible. These tools can intelligently allocate power, saving the planet's finite resources and cutting consumers' energy bills. However, the barriers to this must-have technology are considerable because the grid is a true legacy technology; it is ubiquitous, yet mostly invisible. The tale of building a smarter grid involves many characters — for example, utilities, governments and consumers — each with entrenched interests and motivations. That said, there's plenty of hope for a happy ending to the smart grids story.
Moving from a legacy grid is likely going to take a while. Currently, utilities still manually read meters attached to buildings and have difficulty predicting outages during peak load. Rewire explains that many companies still fire up fossil fuel-based peaking power plants to supplement generation, which can take some time and leave customers in the dark. Utilities have been one of the last major industries to adopt 21st-century technology to produce, measure and deliver electricity. Something that large doesn't change overnight.
Smart meters are the most visible part of the developing smart grid. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that utilities have installed more than 51 million smart meters in the U.S., with 89 percent of those in residences. However, with smart meters installed in 43 percent of American homes, according to The Washington Post, it will be several more years until most locations have them. Once they're installed, consumers also must be taught how the devices can help reduce their bills. "When it comes to changing people's energy behavior, the smart meter revolution so far hasn't been very revolutionary," The Washington Post states. It takes time to learn that running the washing machine during peak times on a hot day might have a negative impact.
Installing smart meters is probably the easiest factor in the smart grid equation. A grid can't be smart if all of its individual parts don't have the necessary capabilities. A true smart grid will require smart appliances, meters, transformers and distribution equipment.
Steps to smarter grids
Tomorrow's smart grids will incorporate many currently available technologies that haven't been implemented due to cost, lack of expertise and the absence of a government mandate. These solutions include smart storage and distributed generation, which contribute to sustainability for utilities and cost effectiveness for consumers.
Renewable energy sources often produce a surplus. Utilities can implement storage technology to save the excess power for peak usage times. Additionally, distributed generation allows energy providers to combat demand with user-generated power. Today, the bulk of electricity is usually produced far from where it's consumed. To address peak demand issues, utilities must adapt to a system where consumers and businesses produce their own power.
Smart meters, advanced control systems and interconnections with other utilities and power generators will create huge amounts of data for utilities to manage. This data onslaught will be drawn from every aspect of a utility's business, including customer operations, security and power distribution. Fortunately, big data solutions can handle and analyze information from disparate sources, providing utilities with strategic insights that will ensure a successful smart grid implementation.
While a true smart grid likely won't arrive for another 25 to 30 years, the U.S. has made strides to a smarter grid with technology that is available now. Utilities need to create a road map leading to a future with smart grids. That future is soon.
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