How Smart is a Smart Grid?The world has become an increasingly ‘smart’ place, with in-built intelligence and enhanced functionality now coming as standard features in everything from bombs to phones – and now it seems the race is on to smarten up the grid too, and change the way we get our electricity forever.

It promises to bring something for everyone – big energy savings for consumers, more efficient use of existing capacity, a reduced risk of power outages, better integration for renewables and an incentive for small scale domestic generation.

So what is a Smart Grid – and just how ‘smart’ is it?

Digital enables rapid response to demand

Like just about everything else these days, at its heart, it’s digital. Putting communications technology at the core of the electricity supply means that unlike a traditional grid system, when changing consumer demand is only registered after it has happened, with the Smart Grid, those changes are noticed as they happen.

At its simplest, that allows a faster response to rising demand, but the real benefits go further than that. The Smart Grid communicates in both directions, so it automatically knows not only how much power is being drawn by consumers, and how much generating capacity there is available at any one time, but also what additional reserves it can call on should demand begin to outstrip supply.

Balancing the load on the grid

We’ve all heard the stories about the sudden surge in usage at key moments, such as half-time in the FA Cup, or the end of one of the big TV talent show finals, when the whole nation seems to reach for its kettles and makes 50 million cups of tea. The whole idea has somehow slipped into our collective subconscious, almost as a bit of a joke – but if you’re one of the people responsible for making sure that the country’s lights stay on through peak demands, it’s certainly no laughing matter.

The total load on the grid can vary enormously over time, and the changes can happen very quickly – and crucially, faster than the start-up time of a large generator station. In a traditional grid, the only way to deal with such a potential event is to have a number of spare stations running at what is known as ‘dissipative standby’ – running gently in the background, ready to ramp up and meet growing demand if it arises.

Side-stepping standby

As we all know, when it comes to saving energy, ‘standby’ is a word you really don’t want to be hearing – and unsurprisingly, the Smart Grid offers a way to avoid it. Able to ‘talk’ as well as ‘listen’ to the myriad of devices connected to the system, the Smart Grid can co-ordinate how they run, effectively helping to smooth out the instant spike in demand and buy time for more generation capacity to be started up – and that means significant energy saving, and major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions too.

According to one US study, improving grid efficiency by just 5% would equate to taking a staggering 53 million cars off the road! America’s love affair with its automobiles aside, with fewer cars and a smaller population, we obviously would not be able to achieve quite the same numbers over here, but the principle, of course, remains exactly the same.

Automated analysis and problem solving

The Smart Grid could also get around one of the other big problems that periodically plague conventional power distribution – blackouts. A sudden failure here, eventually causes another fault there; this overloads…that trips out…and before you know where you are, five counties are plunged into darkness. Given the size and complexity of today’s supply infrastructure, the speed at which decisions have to be made, as one problem cascades on to the next, are often faster than humans can readily manage.

Enter the Smart Grid, and automated analysis and problem solving via almost Internet-like fast switching and re-routing becomes possible, with embedded sensors providing data in real time that allows developing events to be detected, monitored and even anticipated ahead of time. It could bring a grid that is self-healing, and by learning from its experiences as the years go by, self-teaching too, perpetually honing its skills to do a better and better job of keeping the light on.

Cutting costs for consumers

The technology also promises a revolution for consumers too. The Smart Grid should open the door to variable electric rates – cheap electricity at varying times of the day, when the Grid knows there’s more power being generated than is required.

Imagine being able to set up your ‘smart’ washing machine to come on automatically, when the Grid gives it the nod that energy prices are really low.

It would mean a final goodbye to manual timers and waiting for scheduled ‘off-peak’ hours in the middle of the night – and as electric cars and other higher-energy rechargeable systems become more widespread over the coming decades, the benefits of that are only going to get bigger.

Integrating renewables and ‘intermittant’ power

Alongside that happening, we’re also set to see renewable sources of energy play an ever increasing part in the mix – and Smart Grids could hold the key to their success. As a general rule, renewable generators are relatively small scale, and often produce their power intermittently – there are times when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining, and there are only so many tides in a day. For conventional grid management, integrating these kinds of distributed generation technologies into a system fundamentally set up for conventional power-station-sized loads has its headaches.

Seamlessly interconnecting mini- or even micro-scale loads holds no such problems for the Smart Grid, which can blend the relatively tiny output of fuel-cells, wind turbines or photo-voltaic systems with that from the largest multi-megawatt generators around. That bodes well for commercial renewable generation projects, of course, but it’s also potentially very good news for anyone with a small renewable energy system of their own, since at a stroke it removes almost all of the technical barriers to selling excess power generated at home, to the grid. With a bit of luck, it should help remove some of the bureaucratic barriers too – but we’ll probably have to wait and see about that; this is Britain, after all!

Coming Soon!

The first step is about to get underway; in 2015 the UK’s energy companies will begin to roll out Smart Meters across the country, as part of a Government mandated drive that aims to see 53 million of these devices installed in our homes by 2020. That alone should make missed meter readings and estimated bills a thing of the past, as your meter will be now be able to speak directly to the energy company – and from there, variable pricing and all the other benefits of the Smart Grid will follow.

If all that does go according to plan, then the future’s shaping up to be very smart indeed.