Get Smart with a New Grid

Alex Huang likens today’s antiquated electrical grid to the slow and cumbersome computers that existed before the Internet. “Computing has undergone a revolution in the past 20 years,” he says. “We need a revolution in energy just like we had with the Internet.”

Get Smart with a New Grid GetSmartWithaNewGrid
Universities and private energy companies are racing to figure out what a smart grid looks like in practice. (Stock.xchng/bizior)
 Huang is director of the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center, or FREEDM center, a leading university initiative to bring the nation’s electrical grid into the 21st century. The goal is to develop what has been dubbed the smart grid. This intelligent grid would use information technologies and advanced hardware to improve the efficiency and reliability of electricity production and delivery, while maximizing renewable energy generation.

Modernizing the electrical grid is a national priority that would combat climate change, improve energy security, create untold green jobs and spawn innovation, experts say. President Obama touted the smart grid in his inaugural address, and the federal economic stimulus package enacted earlier this year included $11 billion for smart grid initiatives.

With good reason: the infrastructure of the electrical grid has changed little since the 1960s and 70s. Built with one goal in mind–keeping the lights on–the current grid is a one-way flow of energy. Power plants push electricity through high-voltage lines to users, whose only information about their power use is a bill at the end of the month. An estimated 15 percent of the energy is lost in long-distance transmission, and about half of the installed capacity of power plants is off-line at any given time due to maintenance or while waiting to be fired up for peak demand periods.

A major goal of the smart grid would be to minimize reliance on centralized power plants, which are expensive and also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. “Some of the least-efficient power plants are brought online to meet peak demand,” says Mariesa Crow, director of the Energy Research and Development Center at the University of Missouri Science and Technology.

But much work needs to be done. Despite the surge of enthusiasm, the smart grid remains a concept whose core elements–new semiconductors, advanced microprocessors, next-generation batteries and storage devices–must be invented, tested and deployed. “Everyone is talking about the smart grid,” Crow says, “but nobody really knows exactly what it will look like.”

Located at North Carolina State and created in 2008 with funding from the National Science Foundation, the FREEDM center is a testing and development center for some of the next-generation technologies that will be at the core of the smart grid. Partner universities include Arizona State, Florida State, Florida A&M, Missouri University of Science and Technology, Germany’s Aachen University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. “Our goal is to help create what we call the Energy Internet,” Huang says.

In 2010, Huang expects to open a new 20,000-square-foot headquarters on NC State’s Centennial Campus. The facility will be a one-megawatt “power hub” that will operate like a small version of the smart grid, integrating solar and wind power, fuel cells, advanced batteries and storage devices. The challenge of the smart grid will be to provide the same seamless flow of energy to customers with many sources of distributed power such as rooftop photovoltaics. Monitoring and managing all of this distributed power and ensuring that it delivers electricity where and when it is needed will require a massive upgrade of information technologies.

Smart meters are the first step. Located in homes and businesses, these two-way communication devices connect customers to utilities and provide real-time information on power use. “Right now the only communication between customers and utilities is when a customer says, ‘My power is out,’ or a utility says, ‘You’re late on your bill,'” says Karl Lewis, chief strategy officer at GridPoint, a software company that is working with Xcel Energy on the SmartGridCity project in Boulder, Colo.

About five percent of U.S. homes have smart meters, and President Obama has called for the installation of 40 million more. Universities and colleges participating in smart metering projects include the University of Texas and Austin Community College, the University of South Florida and the University of Colorado, where the university chancellor’s house is serving as a demonstration project for smart-metering technologies. The house has been equipped with rooftop photovoltaics, a lithium-ion battery pack for storing solar energy, programmable wireless thermostats and a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Using a Web portal created by GridPoint, the chancellor and his wife can log on to monitor their energy use and see how much electricity their solar panels are generating. As more homeowners get this ability they will be able to make informed choices about when and how much electricity they want to consume and at what price. Customers could decide, for instance, to charge their electric car or run appliances when rates are cheapest or when their rooftop photovoltaics are producing at maximum capacity.

Giving consumers real-time information about their power use, according to a federal study in the Northwest, can reduce energy use by up to 10 percent. Utilities, likewise, will be able to reach into homes to lower thermostats or turn off air conditioning at peak times, minimizing the need to fire up peak-load power plants or avoiding blackouts. This is called dynamic load control. “You can only do this if you have advanced communication,” says Anjan Bose, professor of electrical engineering at Washington State University and head of Gridstat, an initiative to develop the secure communication network necessary for the smart grid. “That requires new software and middleware.”

Wireless technology and fiber-optic lines will be used to transmit this data between homes and utilities. “Many of the components of this system already exist,” Bose says. “What do not exist are the standards and protocols and all the software.” National standards must be established so all these computers can talk to one another, creating an interoperable system like the Internet. Advanced communications will also create a more reliable power grid by allowing utilities to detect and prevent oscillations. In 2003, 50 million people on the East Coast lost power due to a glitch that rippled through the grid. “If you detect these oscillations quickly you can isolate these blackouts so they don’t spread.”

Wind energy is an important component of a smarter grid. “The criticism of wind is that it doesn’t always deliver power when you need it because sometimes it stops blowing,” says Colorado State professor Bryan Willson. “We need to figure out how to use wind most effectively.”

As Willson speaks, large diesel and natural gas powered generators rumble in the background. The noise is coming from Colorado State’s Integrid Laboratory, one of the world’s largest grid simulators. The lab is working with Denmark, which produces 25 percent of its energy from wind, to determine how to cope with the stochastic nature of wind electricity. The laboratory’s generators are programmed to mimic the surges and slow-downs of wind turbines. Simultaneously, large load banks mimic the constantly varying use of electricity by customers. “If we can predict behavior, then we can schedule power loads more efficiently.”

The transmission of electricity over long distances and its distribution into homes must also be transformed, experts say. This will take new infrastructure, from modern transmission lines to transport wind and solar power from the Midwest and Southwest to, closer to home, solid-state intelligent transformers to replace the electromagnetic transformers (the canisters mounted on utility poles outside homes) that convert high-voltage electricity to useable 120-volt power.

“The big challenge is that most power transmission is still controlled mechanically with switches. We need to have computer control of the system,” says electrical engineering professor Gerald Heydt of Arizona State, a member of the Power Systems Engineering Research Center, along with more than a dozen universities including Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Howard, Iowa State, University of California at Berkeley and Wichita State.

Storage has been called the holy grail of the smart grid. The FREEDM center has a battery research team working to develop improved storage devices. Storing renewable energy–in batteries and flywheels or by making hydrogen to power fuel cells–and using it in times of peak demand will minimize the need for new coal and natural gas plants. Electric cars, likewise, will serve as mobile storage devices that can feed power back to the grid in times of peak demand. “If you integrate all these sources, from solar panels to electric vehicles and pair them with conservation, you can make them look and feel like centralized generation,” says GridPoint’s Lewis.

Building an intelligent electrical grid will transform society as much as the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, telephones or the Internet did in the past, experts say. “It’s hard to imagine what the grid will look like in 10 years,” Crow says. “It’s an exciting time to be in this field.”

For college and university students, that means future jobs. Some experts have called the development of the smart grid one of the greatest potential wealth creators of the coming decade. “We’re training the workforce of the future,” says ASU’s Heydt. More than 200 graduate and undergraduate students are working with the FREEDM center, which offers a master’s degree in smart renewable energy systems. Says Huang: “Those students will help propagate this technology.”

But cross one job off your list: meter reader. “Those meter readers who drive around in a truck to check meters outside houses,” Bose jokes, “their days are numbered.”

See More:

The ‘Demand’ Response: Training Wheels to Energy Efficiency: ClimateEdu

How Smart?: Renewable Energy World

Published: April 14, 2009