What is a Smart Grid?
A Smart Grid is a just a name for an electrical grid which utilizes several different technologies that allow the grid to operate more dynamically. This means that the grid can detect changes in demand or supply and then quickly respond to ensure that the electrical grid remains stable. Fundamentally, a Smart Grid is an idea for a grid that utilizes new technologies in order to deliver electricity in a cheaper, cleaner and more efficient manner.
One might ask what the difference between the grid we have now and the Smart Grid of the future. It is important to understand how the current electricity system works. Essentially, electricity currently moves in one direction, from the large, central generating plant, through transmission infrastructure and into homes and businesses. In Ontario for example, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) generates about 30% of the electricity in Ontario from their nuclear plants , which then flows through transmission lines owned and operated mostly by Hydro One. These lines lead to thousands of substations around Ontario which are operated by local utility companies, who are the entities that residents pay their utility bills.
In the future, the electricity grid will be much more complex in order to facilitate a cleaner, more interactive and economically efficient way to buy and sell electricity. One may be able to sell power from solar panels on their roof directly to their neighbour via a smartphone app or store excess electricity in a battery, effectively making people ‘prosumers’ – consumers and producers. Businesses will be able to generate electricity for their own needs or sell of excess. This breaks the one-way movement of electricity which is how our current system works. Electricity will now be consumed and produced in a distributed manner. Information is now generated anywhere by any physical system, available in real time and can be sent wirelessly to where it is needed. Renewable energy will be ubiquitous in the energy supply forcing the grid to respond to changes in supply and demand. Smart Grids introduce the ability to do grid-wide monitoring in real-time so that operators and dynamically shift supply and demand to accommodate more renewables. A Smart Grid will be able have make these and many more ideas become reality, which many would have thought would not be possible before.
It will push the electricity sector forward on a progressive vision for the future of energy and society.
The Smart Grid outlined above relies on a large number of technologies, both software and hardware. These technologies exist to maintain and manage what is becoming a more complex electricity grid. Internally, Smart Grids may use a lot of digital technologies like machine learning to optimize demand and supply. Blockchain could implement a secure electronic payment system for peer-to-peer payment. Physical technologies like wireless communications and smart meters will allow for more efficient monitoring of the grid. All of these technologies will come together to make a smarter grid.
Why do we need a Smart Grid?
Before I go into more detail about the details of Smart Grids, I think it is important to mention the motivation for the development of this technology. Smart Grids are often cited as a way to develop a grid with renewable energy and hence fight climate change but there are other benefits which include dealing with cyber security threats and grid reliability and resilience (i.e. reduced brownouts and blackouts).
Due to rising CO2 emissions causing global temperatures to rise, the world must make a transition away from fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar must be a part of the solution, however, these sources are intermittent and thus cause issues around grid stability and electricity availability. These challenges can be solved from the supply side of the electricity grid by using energy storage solutions such as lithium-ion batteries, fly wheels and compressed air (just to name a few). However, solutions to these challenges also come from having a more flexible demand side of the electricity grid. I will give two examples to illustrate this.
First, imagine when there is excessive electricity from some renewable source such as wind or solar. Instead of just storing the energy in batteries, one could have buildings turn on their heating or cooling systems to prepare for later use or have water heaters run to store hot water for use at a later time. Now, imagine there is not enough wind or solar production at a given moment in the day, rather only discharging batteries or turning on natural gas peaker plants, we could have electric vehicles which can discharge the electricity which is stored in their batteries to help meet demand.
Now for this flexible demand side to exist, there must smart systems in place that can facilitate the communication with the energy infrastructure at the scale needed to implement what I described above. All of the appliances and devices must be connected to the Internet and have the integration to do what I described. The grid must also have the proper software systems to provide communication between these devices and the grid. Putting these together and we have the essence of what Smart Grid technology is and the functionality that it can provide. It will facilitate the connectivity to give renewable energy the flexibility that is needed to get to high percentage of renewable penetration into the electricity grid.
In a hypothetical future conflict, nations will likely not begin the fighting with armed conflict, but rather attacks on key physical and cyber infrastructure, with the largest and possibly the most damaging target being the electricity grid  . Non-state actors like terrorists can also target the electricity grid. The electricity grid is physical made up of a lot of physical systems, but most are connected in some way to a computer network via electronics used to control specific. This type of integration of industrial processes with computer networks will only increase in the future . All of this call for investment in the upgrading of the grid to become more secure and able to take on these types of attacks.
Resilience, Reliability and Consumer Experience
The home is a good example of where connection between the electricity grid and where consumers actually use their energy. Intelligent software will allow you to see exactly what appliances are taking power and allow you to better use energy. Batteries and solar panels in the home will be able to intelligently charge and discharge, saving the customer money. Now that all parts of the grid will have sensors and operators will have data on the state of the grid, maintenance crews can be more efficiently dispatched. With a Smart Grid, damage to infrastructure can be fixed by a ‘self-healing’ grid which will automatically reroute power to where it is needed .This will increase the resilience and reliability of the grid.
There are many companies working on Smart Grid technologies. One really cool company based close to many here at Queen’s is the Toronto based Opus One Technologies . They offer what they call is GridOS, which is their software that makes intelligent decisions based on the grid and its needs. Check them out if you found this post interesting!
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