Smart Grid, Part 1: The Need

Written by adam


Two smart grid articles recently appeared and disappeared in the holiday shuffle. Both are too good to let slip, and because I know almost no one actually clicks the links, I’ll use them as the basis for a few backgrounder posts on a technology that will be affecting all of us quite a bit over the next few decades.

First installment: why do we need a smart grid?

As this article from Tyler Hamilton makes clear, one reason is simply that our old electrical transmission system is physically antiquated and technically out-of-date:

> The transformer devices in a typical electrical substation — that is, a point on the grid where power is converted from a higher to lower voltage (or the reverse) — are designed to last 40 years. The average age of transformers in North America is currently 42…

> There are 275,000 substations in the world, 70,000 of them in North America. Most are filled with electromechanical control devices, the equivalent of analog in a digital age or the typewriter of the computer era.

Obsolescence has consequences:

> Compared to the phone or cable company, which can pinpoint and often fix network problems remotely, the local electric utility typically relies on phone complaints from customers to find out about outages on the distribution network. It then sends a crew to wander the streets in search of the failed equipment or line…

> The grid today has 99.97 per cent reliability, meaning you can expect about three hours of outage time a year. On the surface it sounds acceptable, but in the age of the Internet and Web commerce most data centres now require 99.9999 per cent reliability, amounting to about 30 seconds of downtime annually.

Beyond the physical degradation, the existing grid is fundamentally unsuited to accommodating the large amounts of renewable energy we need to address climate change. This fantastic overview from MIT’s Technology Review starts with an anecdote about Vattenfall Europe Transmission, the company that operates northeastern Germany’s electrical grid. Germany leads the world in wind power production, but this fluctuating and unpredictable energy source requires constant vigilance. A team of engineers works constantly on a reactive basis, firing up back-up natural gas plants as needed, or making spot electricity purchases from external suppliers.

The process is both expensive and environmentally wasteful. But at least Germany reaps the benefits of clean energy. In the U.S., our outdated grid prevents the wind farms from even getting built:

> The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, which manages the grid in a region covering portions of 15 states from Pennsylvania to Montana, has received hundreds of applications for grid connections from would-be energy developers whose proposed wind projects would collectively generate 67,000 megawatts of power. That’s more than 14 times as much wind power as the region produces now, and much more than it could consume on its own; it would represent about 6 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. But the existing transmission system doesn’t have the capacity to get that much electricity to the parts of the country that need it. In many of the states in the region, there’s no particular urgency to move things along, since each has all the power it needs. So most of the applications for grid connections are simply waiting in line, some stymied by the lack of infrastructure and others by bureaucratic and regulatory delays.

More coming soon, but of course you are welcome to click the links: a-one and a-two. (Spoiler alert: demand response!)

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  1. richard schumacher

    15,000 miles of new transmission corridors would be an excellent use for economic stimulus funds. The trick will be to avoid running roughshod over key environmental areas while not worrying overly about spoiling some NIMBY’s backyard view.

  2. Michael

    Just finished reading Six Degrees (Our Future On A Hotter Planet). We have seven years to make radical reductions in carbon emmissions. If we don’t put the infrastructure in to support a smaller carbon footprint we are pretty much doomed. What are we waiting for?

  3. Chris Wise

    Should the USA have a modern, reliable, energy efficient electrical transmission grid? Sure but first we need to CONSERVE, second – develop ditributed energy sources and emergency power, third – invest in DC transmission for long runs.

  4. Anonymous

    Good topic. It is amazing that the information we send over the internet in little data packets is mysteriously able to find the right destination, but so many wind farms and other renewable projects get blocked.
    Managing the electrical grid should not be such a difficult thing for American ingenuity to solve. Maybe the same people who have built our telecommunications infrastructure will end up building the new electrical infrastructure.

  5. Alex Kelley

    The aging power grid is giving us one more reason for small-scale PV. Since distributed PV is privately owned and maintained local power source, the utility gets the benefit of a peak load leveler without having to do anything other than install a digital meter. No need for long range transmission lines. I use the electrons from the PV on my roof first and I troubleshoot the system if anything goes wrong. PV’s value to grid stability only adds to environmental, long-term cost savings, local job, free operating fuel, and local energy benefits that most of us already know about.

  6. Jay

    Not straining the grid is a good reason for supporting all sorts of local power generation, including PV, but given the urgency of the problem of getting off of fossil fuels, I think we do need to invest in transmission lines to support renewable energy projects. Amory Lovin’s book, “Small is Profitable” makes a good economic case for investing in a multitude of local, small power generation and efficiency projects. The way to deal with a huge problem quickly is to address it with a multitude of small, independent activities. Small, local projects can make use of the existing infrastructure.

  7. dennis mchale

    Getting the product from the farm to market has always been a problem. When the market is 500 to 1000 miles away it stands to reason that costs to bring that product to market will have to be included in the equation. The problem is how you ship the product to market, I’m thinking. Pushing electrical protons down a wire is not the best way to provide the product to the end user. These of course are arguments/investiagtions for another time.
    Who owns the infrastructure is really a secondary problem, rebuild with support of the commons is also a problem. These battles are again fights that need a measure of time to provide solutions.
    The 6 degrees (really 5 degrees of mean temp rise) is the real problem. Local systems easily maintained at the source where the product is manufactured is a workable model. Moneys need to go there.
    Nuclear should only be used after all structures that use energy have a collector at were the demand is generated.
    If conservation is 20% and local generation is 20%, the mega energy corps need but to make up 60%. This is attainable with-in a couple of years given the proper mandate. It’s the leveraging to get a slice of the $ or to off-set the private sectors costs on the backs of the commons, Boulder Dam revisited, that is stopping the dialog and the cash flow.
    Powerlight/Sunpower has a pva panel that is 20-25% efficiency, where is the push to get to the 40% efficiency with manufacturing that is already up and running? Where’s Sharp, where’s Evergreen, where’s BP? We’ve got to have $ and we’ve got to create the demand. Then the machine runs faster, is more efficient, better mouse trap stuff. This is the easy stuff! We know how do this. We cannot stop to retool an energy grid that will be locked debate. We need to keep our eye on the prize. Do not get above the 5 degree mean temp. All the environmental systems will change so dramatic, the frozen tundra release of methane alone, man, friends this is real.
    They are counting on us NOT getting there. The International Seed Repository is almost complete in it’s construction in Iceland. WE need to prove them wrong!
    Demand $ for local systems, the energy is used local. Write the new President, tell him this, we need money to put solar on our HOMES. We need $ to pay for us to do it. Simple, ‘cus the current bail out is now at $48,500.00 per citizen; at least give us something for our money.
    ‘Nuff said sorry for the ‘straight-arm’.
    More articles on what we need, roof top PVA please.
    Thank you all and Adam,
    Dennis McHale