May 27, 2010

Are you smarter than the "smart grid"?

You are if you have even heard the "smart grid" phrase.

A recent survey of 1000 individuals by EcoAlign revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans have never heard of a smart grid. Then, after they learn that it means sensing system overloads and rerouting power to prevent or minimize a potential outage and allowing energy providers to offer electricity at peak times without fear of blackouts, they hope that a smart grid will cut energy consumption and lower costs. That may be a leap of faith.

Our century-old power grid is the largest interconnected machine on Earth, massively complex. It consists of more than 9,200 electric generating units with more than 1,000,000 megawatts of generating capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines.

Some VERY interesting facts from the Department of Energy at http://www.oe.energy.gov/DocumentsandMedia/DOE_SG_Book_Single_Pages(1).pdf :

There have been five massive blackouts over the past 40 years, three of which have occurred in the past nine years. More blackouts and brownouts are occurring due to the slow response times of mechanical switches, a lack of automated analytics, and a “lack of situational awareness” on the part of grid operators.

In the United States, the average generating station was built in the 1960s using even older technology. Today, the average age of a substation transformer is 42, two years more than their expected life span.

From 1988-98, U.S. electricity demand rose by nearly 30 percent, while the transmission network’s capacity grew by only 15%. Summer peak demand is expected to increase by almost 20% during the next 10 years.

The website above further explains the Smart Grid as it applies to consumers:
For most consumers, energy has long been considered a passive purchase. After all, what choice have they been given? The typical electric bill is largely unintelligible to consumers and delivered days after the consumption actually occurs – giving consumers no visibility into decisions they could be making regarding their energy consumption. However, it pays to look at electric bills closely if for no other reason than this; they also typically include a hefty “mortgage payment” to pay for the infrastructure needed to generate and deliver power to consumers.

A surprisingly substantial portion of your electric bill – between 33% – 50% – is currently assigned to funding our “infrastructure mortgage,” our current electric infrastructure. This item is non-negotiable because that infrastructure – power plants, transmission lines, and everything else that connects them – must be maintained to keep the grid running as reliably as it does. In fact, the transmission and distribution charge on the electric bill is specifically for infrastructure.

With demand estimated to double by 2050 – and more power plants, transmission lines, transformers and substations to be built – the costs of this “big iron” will also show up on your bill in one way or another. (The only difference this time is that global demand for the iron, steel, and concrete required to build this infrastructure will make these commodities far more costly; in fact, the cost of many raw materials and grid components has more than tripled since 2006.)

Further clarification: Devices such as wind turbines, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and solar arrays are not part of the Smart Grid. Rather, the Smart Grid encompasses the technology that enables us to integrate, interface with, and intelligently control these renewable energy sources and innovations.

People are often confused by the terms smart grid and smart meters. Are they the same thing? Not exactly. Metering is just one of hundreds of possible applications that constitute the Smart Grid; a smart meter is a good example of an enabling technology.