We always endeavor to uncover and share great treatments of topics aligned with the themes of Nonlinear Thinking and this recent article at Bloomberg.com on the advances being made by investor-owned and public utilities across the U.S. in building the smart grid is one to share. It provides both some great background on why the smart grid is so badly needed and how it is being built and is excerpted below.
The U.S. utility system sits astride one of the world’s great marvels, the grid. And as with so much of U.S. infrastructure, it’s crumbling because of too little investment and lack of imagination. A $876 billion asset, the grid is an amalgam of almost 7,000 power plants that discharge electricity over 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and more than 2.5 million miles of feeder lines. All this is managed by 3,300 utilities serving 150 million customers. It’s been called the biggest machine in the world.
It’s also something of a relic. Much of it was built after World War II and little updated since the 1970s. A position paper by the Chicago-based Galvin Electricity Initiative describes the grid as “aging, unreliable, inefficient, insecure and incompatible with the needs of a digital economy” and “in dire need of modernization.”
The basic idea is to refashion the grid to manage electricity distribution in the same way that the Internet manages data. While talk of a smart grid has been around for decades, the concept is gaining momentum -- even urgency -- as evidence piles up showing the aging grid’s shortcomings.
Power outages are up 285 percent since 1984 and the U.S. ranks last among the top nine western industrialized nations in the average time that it takes to get the light back on after power failures. Outages cost businesses as much as $150 billion a year in lost continuity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Half of U.S. homes still have mechanical meters that require workers to show up and read them. Utilities deploying such meters have little knowledge of their customers’ energy use or interests beyond a monthly bill; they are simply load.
Beyond improving reliability, the basic idea is this: When all energy-use data is digitized and flows freely between power generators and customers, the smart grid will know exactly how much power is needed, when and where, eliminating much of the waste, overbuilding and guesswork inherent in the current analog system and enabling enormous strides in energy conservation.
Many also see the smart grid as fundamental to the utility system being able to absorb and manage disruptive changes that are remaking the U.S. power paradigm. A surge in rooftop solar has turned tens of thousands of consumers into generators. Power is now flowing two ways in America and regulators and green groups are pushing utilities to integrate more and more of this power -- yet keep the grid stable. Sensors on the old, dumb grid checked for trouble every six seconds. The new phasor units look 60 times a second. With energy flowing at almost the speed of light, this is a significant improvement.
Such successes give the smart grid momentum, though hurdles remain. A smart grid linked to smart homes and smart businesses raises cyber security and privacy issues. There are remaining technological challenges. An American Enterprise Institute report, while nodding to the virtues of an Internet-like grid, said controlling megawatt hours across a smart grid is far more complex than controlling megabytes on the Internet, analogous to “going from controlling a toy drone to a Boeing 777.”