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Smart grid: ready for take off?

Posted: 09 Apr 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:smart grid? digital network? energy renewable?

2009 could be the year the smart grid starts its transformation from an overhyped and ill-defined concept to a set of clearly articulated pieces and working prototypes.

The U.S. Department of Energy is scrambling to meet an April 18 deadline to lay out plans to spend $4.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars on smart grids. The money is expected to fund a handful of demonstration systems and includes $10 million to accelerate efforts to construct a framework of standards.

Not content to wait, one veteran energy researcher is preparing to launch an IEEE effort to define the core pieces of the smart grid so developers can start building them.

All sides agree that today's aging analog and mechanical electric grid needs to be dragged into the era of digital networks. The promises are compelling.

A more modern grid could carry more energy and do so more efficiently and securely. It could accommodate new sources of renewable energy, ranging from giant desert photovoltaic farms to the solar panel on your neighbor's roof. And an open grid could spur the growth of a new marketplace of energy entrepreneurs looking to plug into it.

Daunting task
Communications companies reeling from slashed IT and capex budgets see opportunities for claiming slivers of the $200 billion investment that could be required to modernize the grid. But the challenges are daunting.

In the United States today, the grid comprises more than 14,000 transmission substations and 4,500 switching centers, operated by as many as 3,000 independent companies regulated by public utility commissions in every state and region. They are working under no shared, overarching plan. There is no set of agreed-upon standards, and some of the fundamental underlying technologies for the smart gridsuch as the means for storing and controlling the flow of massive quantities of energyhave yet to be invented.

"Energy is right where telecom was 30 years ago, with a lot of potential and need for deregulation," said Kurt Yeager, executive director of the Galvin Electricity Initiative, a venture backed by former Motorola chief executive Robert Galvin that promotes microgrids. "We have the equivalent of a thousand Ma Bells at the state level that need to go through policy changes," said Yeager, who is also a former CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute.

Resistance is high. To some extent, energy regulators, the utilities they manage and the vendors hoping to sell to them want to preserve the status quo rather than open up their sector to all comers. Insofar as they do promote change, it is often in their own interests rather than those of the consumer, who could be in charge in tomorrow's freewheeling energy market.

The Grid Friendly appliance controller, developed at the Pacific Northwest National Lab, plugs common household appliances into an energy monitoring data network.

There's plenty of work on the tech front, too. "Everything [in the current grid is about as out of date as you could imagine, right down to the same old copper wires, rather than newer, more efficient conductive materials that can carry power without as much resistance, energy loss and heat," said Yeager. "There are virtually no power electronics or sensors whatsoever in the system, so we are literally minutes behind knowing where the system really isand in some cases it could take 10 days to open and close a switch."

Out on the bleeding edge, there are no good ways to store the thousands of megawatts of energy that could be generated by the big wind farms envisioned for the northern prairie states. Neither is there an energy flow control mechanism for quickly routing that power to Chicago on a hot August night or to New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

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