Whither the Smart Grid?


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Our present electrical grid—let’s just be honest—is based on technology from the 1920s that has been enhanced, expanded, improved and strengthened but not basically changed in its nature or concept since then. It is—to put it kindly—held together by sticks and bailing wire implemented by legions of heroic and dedicated engineers and technicians. Still, we have witnessed in recent years several immense failures that could easily have been much worse and portend real future disaster if fundamental redesign and overhaul are not undertaken on a massive scale.

There is, of course, the movement toward the so-called Smart Grid that is starting to gain traction. The Smart Grid holds the promise of an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), automated meter reading (AMR), intelligent protocols for appliances that can select to turn on when rates are low, visualization technology for real-time load monitoring and pinpointing of trouble, the potential for load balancing, and much more that can result in a more modern, stable and efficient electricity distribution systems.

While the Smart Grid is not identical to renewable energy resources like solar, wind, geothermal and others, it is conceived to accommodate them and to make them more able to contribute their share to the overall energy picture. Of course, there are also elements of resistance to the build-out of the Smart Grid. I am told by friends who have worked in the industry that the electrical power industry is extremely resistant to change, and one reason is the fear that this whole existing bailing wire infrastructure could come tumbling down. The counter to that is the argument that it will anyway if something is not done.

We are already seeing the proliferation of intelligent and wireless metering, and in California plans are underway to build new power lines that will bring power from vast new wind farms and desert solar arrays to the cities. It turns out, however, that there is a choice that must be made and a debate is churning up that could actively involve the use of embedded technology. At its core, it concerns whether to continue the old model of utility-oriented power generation and distribution, or to modify that model with a large degree of decentralization. 

There is growing resistance to placing huge solar arrays in the pristine deserts and then shipping the power over long lines to where it will be used. Far better, argue some, to decentralize and produce solar power where it is actually used—by putting panels on almost every rooftop—commercial or residential—in the state. This would, of course, be a boon for the sales of intelligent silicon because it would involve controllers that would transform the power to AC and either put it onto the grid or draw it off as needed while keeping track of the billing data. Many, many embedded devices would be needed to do that ($).

There would also be numerous other advantages including reducing transmission losses and increased grid stability and security due to decentralization. It would also eliminate or reduce the expenditures needed for more actual transmission lines. Trouble is, photovoltaic solar power in urban centers would also pose a threat to the utility business model. Not surprisingly, there are also a number of non-technical objections due to this little fact. But a decision must be made.

Whatever form the Smart Grid ultimately takes, it will heavily involve embedded intelligence and widely distributed embedded intelligence at that. It will also have to accommodate growing sources of renewable energy. At this point, it appears likely that the result will be some kind of intelligent hybrid. The utility model is certainly not going to go away. We will still have huge amounts of power coming from central generating plants. The question is, how will this system be made more efficient and more reliable and how will added capacity in the form of renewable energy sources be integrated into the new grid infrastructure? If a decentralized model is added to the existing centralized utility model, will it eventually come to dominate as older plants go offline? 

There are many factors all swirling into the eventual outcome, but there is no standing still. Inaction will ultimately bring disaster. Advancing the Smart Grid in the most effective way will provide a reliable source of increasingly clean power and will definitely be a major area of activity for the embedded industry.