The current electric grid was built in the late 1800s. While it has been updated since then, its function — to provide a one-way flow of power from electric utilities to homes and businesses — has become outdated. Now energy consumers have become “prosumers,” capable of generating their own power and sending it back to utilities, storing it, or even sharing it with their neighbors. The following video explains what the smart grid is and how it works:
Given the evolving needs of energy customers, the nature of the electric grid is changing as well, and many types of technology are behind that shift. The smart grid not only makes possible two-way communication and energy transmission but also supports automated power delivery. Here we examine a few technologies that are particularly important to the success of the smart grid.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is the use of internet-connected sensors on a variety of objects. That includes some familiar ones, including a refrigerator that sends needed grocery items to a list on a smartphone, or a security camera installed outside a home or business sending images to an app.
Power providers can use IoT applications to get information about energy usage, as with Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI), which, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), “is an integrated system of smart meters, communication networks, and data management systems that [enable] two-way communication between utilities and customers.”
Electric utilities also use IoT functionality to track the performance of generation equipment, allowing them to know immediately when a component requires maintenance or replacement. Such functionality creates a “self-healing” grid that is less likely to break down unexpectedly, ensuring more consistent and reliable energy delivery.
IoT technology can be used to distribute energy produced by sources other than utilities, too. These sources are known as distributed energy resources (DERs) and they include solar and wind power generated by home and business owners.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the brain that analyzes the data generated by IoT devices. According to a Digitalist Magazine article, it can be used to “spot patterns and anomalies in datasets, allowing utilities to make on-the-spot decisions about how to best allocate energy resources.”
Additionally, AI can help utilities guide customers in their energy use. Utilities can install devices in customers’ homes, such as on their water heaters, that, through analysis, automatically detect and adjust usage, creating energy efficiency and cost savings for customers. It also enables utilities to better manage peak loads (managing high-usage events such as very hot or very cold days).
AI is also the backbone of efficient DER management, enabling utilities and prosumers to automatically communicate about how much energy is being transferred, how much is needed, and when limits have been reached.
The 5th generation of wireless technology, known as 5G, has not yet been fully deployed in the U.S. When it is, it will benefit the smart grid by enabling other technologies, including smart metering, drones, and the IoT. With 5G, smart metering will become more widespread, enabling customers to better understand and manage their own energy consumption.
As part of a larger AMI system that will become faster with 5G, power utilities can gain access to this data, allowing them to aggregate insights about customer usage and adjust their services accordingly. AMI technology can also help power companies identify outages, making them more efficient at getting power back online.
Energy providers are already using drones to inspect and repair equipment that’s out of reach for humans. The addition of 5G will enable this operation to go beyond visual range and get video images in real-time, giving operators greater flexibility in how they use this valuable tool.
The added speed provided by 5G will also boost the effectiveness of IoT devices. As a result, equipment monitoring will become more accurate, generating more useful data, and improving energy delivery.
Drone technology is improving and becoming more cost-effective. That’s great news for utilities, which can deploy them for a variety of uses, including equipment inspection and repair, and power restoration following an outage.
The technology allows utilities to identify equipment issues early before they become more costly to repair. The imagery that drones capture can be highly detailed and keep human workers from having to perform risky examination missions. This strategy also allows companies to reserve human capacity for more pressing matters, keeping operating costs, and, therefore, energy costs low.
Drones are especially useful for examining renewable energy equipment at wind, solar, and hydro plants. For example, drones can take the place of humans having to rappel down a wind turbine, a highly dangerous task. For solar panel examinations, drones can cover more panels quicker, offering a complete picture of the equipment’s condition.
Utility operators can also use drones to help restore essential power more quickly by surveying storm damage in areas where humans are unable to go. It can take many days for crews to visually review and report on damage. Drones can do it much faster, providing data needed to know where to dispatch repair crews.
One of the most exciting technologies for bringing together disparate sources of energy is blockchain. For example, as rooftop solar becomes more prevalent, owners want an efficient way to exchange the extra energy they produce. A blockchain is the perfect platform for such exchanges between neighbors because it’s highly secure and doesn’t require participants to know or trust each other.
This type of energy exchange between producers is known as the peer-to-peer (P2P) model. Currently, it’s still in the experimental stages, but there have been some promising initial projects. One of the earliest P2P projects was the Brooklyn Microgrid, which “allows prosumers (i.e. residential and commercial solar panel owners) to sell the excess solar energy they generate to NYC residents who prefer using renewable, versus fossil fuel, energy.”
The Smart Grid Evolves
The smart grid has the potential to make power transmission more efficient, reduce costs for utilities and consumers, and integrate renewable energy resources. As the smart grid continues to enhance and replace original power grid equipment, many modern technologies will be used to support it in new and fascinating ways.