The Smart Grid: A Primer

Learn what the smart grid is and what it means to you

6 December 2010
feattech Image: James Provost

From developed countries such as Italy, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States to developing ones like China, India, Poland, and Vietnam, nations are investing in smart-grid systems. Cumulative global smart-grid spending by governments and utilities is expected to total US $200 billion worldwide from 2008 through 2015, according to Pike Research, a firm that analyzes global clean-technology markets. That spending doesn't even include investments needed merely to keep aging electric transmission and distribution infrastructures running.

But what exactly is a smart grid, and how might it affect you?

The electricity grid is made up of four main components: generation, transmission, distribution, and customers. Generation refers to the production of electricity from sources of energy, such as coal and natural gas. The transmission system carries the electric power from the generators over long distances to a distribution system, which brings the power to the customers. Distribution systems can include power stations of their own.

Developing countries often have antiquated systems. But even more modern systems, which in a developed country such as the United States can be 50 years old or more, are typically inefficient, unreliable, polluting, incompatible with renewable energy sources, and vulnerable to cyberattack. In other words, problems with electric grids abound.

A smart grid would help make everything better, thus improving reliability, security, and efficiency, which are of critical importance given that electric power consumption worldwide is expected to triple by 2050.

The key to making things better is two-way data communications among all the elements, so that information about the grid's condition can be shared and acted upon. To do that, many devices, including those on the customers' premises, must be computer controlled and interactive. Smart-grid designers would overlay today's systems with the sensors, controls, and wireless devices needed for digital communications and for monitoring and controlling grid activities. And customers could save money by turning off heavy-duty motors and appliances during peak hours.

The anticipated benefits are less pollution, lower bills, and fewer outages. However, tumult could erupt when utilities ask customers to pay for new equipment like smart meters.

More and more countries are seeking to implement energy conservation measures, and they're requiring utilities to get energy from renewable resources such as solar and wind power. But because those sources operate intermittently, they present a challenge for transmission and distribution systems. A smart grid would help make it easier to integrate photovoltaic, wind, and other intermittent power sources.

The smart grid is expected to reduce or even prevent power outages by anticipating equipment failures and rerouting electricity transmission to compensate. New grid technologies will also detect and isolate power outages to contain them. (Nowadays, it's often only when someone calls in a downed power line that the utility learns about it.) Self-healing systems would use real-time data to detect and isolate faults and to reconfigure the distribution network to minimize the number of customers affected.

Smart grids are expected to be more resilient and better able to handle not only peak electricity demand but also severe weather conditions such as hurricanes, ice storms, and floods. And in systems that have time-of-day electricity pricing, customers could save money by shutting off appliances and using less power at times when electricity is most expensive.

When all-electric vehicles finally hit the streets, utilities could be paying you to plug in your car and feed them energy. A bidirectional vehicle-to-grid interface would let a plug-in car take energy from the grid when it is being charged and put it back on the grid when it is garaged. In effect, the cars would act as tiny distributed power stations.

IEEE, its members, and other organizations are working to make the smart grid a reality. They're concerned with the countless technical considerations required to support a multitude of networks and interfaces. That includes creating a common technical platform for all the players to build on. They're addressing such functions as load control, data analysis, maintenance, and security management.

Sensing, measurement, and control devices will be expected to support today's applications and new services without the need to replace core infrastructure and associated equipment. That requires an open infrastructure in which devices from different manufacturers can be mixed and matched. Requirements for communication between the grid and those smart appliances, electric vehicles, and solar panels are being defined. Other projects involve creating systems for storing the energy that comes from intermittent power sources, like wind turbines and electric cars.

"IEEE is leveraging its strong foundation and collaborating to evolve standards, share best practices, publish developments, and provide educational offerings to advance technology and facilitate the smart grid's successful deployment throughout the world," says Wanda Reder, chair of IEEE Smart Grid, the group that oversees IEEE's activities in the area.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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