Many believe that the green economy will be powered by the wind and by the sun. But fewer people are aware that to make this possible we need to profoundly transform the current electric grid to control and manage renewable energy supplies. Balancing load and demand is a quite a challenge with renewable supplies that are intermittent and depend on the weather.  Without a robust ability to continuously balance energy supply and demand, wind or solar energy sources can have a profoundly negative impact on grid operations, reliability and power quality and force grid operators to make costly and inefficient adaptations to current spot conditions.

The current electric grid in this country and elsewhere is unable to support the rapidly growing number of renewable based suppliers of electric power.  It is much too fragmented and regionalized; it is unable to handle rapidly changing power fluxes that typify wind and solar power, and it has too little capacity for storing temporary surpluses of power to release in periods of power deficit.  For example, large wind farms in Germany have had to be quickly shut down in an emergency fashion to keep from overloading the grid in periods of high wind speed and low power demand.  The intermittent fluctuations in wind power supply have also forced grid operators to inefficiently cycle backup natural gas power plants on and off on a daily basis in order to maintain the balance between supply and demand on the grid.

Building the smart grid presents a huge opportunity for inventive, smart entrepreneurs.   It could open up many careers and job opportunities in many different fields for those who develop the requisite skill sets and expertise. The potential market size of this sector within the green economy is very large. According to a recent study conducted by the Brattle Group, adding smart-grid technologies to the grid could reduce overall electricity consumption could be by 6 percent and peak demand by as much as 27 percent. The peak-demand reductions alone would save between $175 billion and $332 billion over 20 years.

But what is the smart grid? It has a nice ring to it, but what does it mean really beyond clever marketing buzz?  Some of the most often mentioned and defining characteristics of the smart grid are:

•    It adds a parallel real time information network onto the existing grid enabling real-time (or near real-time) monitoring and control of the grid from end to end, increasing its overall robustness and responsiveness to changing local conditions.

•    It pushes intelligence to the network edge nodes distributing decisions about consumption and supply to edge nodes on the grid increasing the overall efficiency as well as flattening the spikes and troughs of supply and demand. This is represents a huge win in reduced need for extra generating capacity to meet peak load conditions.  Smart meters, home energy control units and home appliances and pricing plans based on peak load are ways which edge intelligence can be increased.  Spot pricing based on current conditions will also enable connected supply nodes and consuming nodes to quickly respond to market conditions.

•    It adds a large number of storage nodes to the grid (some large ones and many small ones) that together help flatten out transient peaks and valleys of supply and demand. These can be utility scale pumped storage facilities, distributed networks of batteries or other energy storage nodes, and it has intriguingly been suggested a future fleet of grind enabled plugin hybrids that pull power off the grid when it is plentiful and can sell it back up onto the grid when prices (and peak load) are at a peak.  A fleet of millions of plugin hybrids together represents a massive in built distributed network of storage nodes that can sell many Gigawatt hours back onto the grid when supply is scarce.

•    It adds a long distance very high voltage DC trunk network to redistribute power over long distances with small line loss. Think of it as a kind of interstate highway system for the grid that connects existing regional grids together into a much larger continental sized super grid. In this manner regional wind or solar rich regions can have their power distributed to energy hungry markets a long ways off and regional areas of deficit can be resupplied from distant regions where there are current surpluses.

There are many levels and kinds of business activity involved with building this future electric energy network. The grid related infrastructure and hardware itself including upgrading existing transmission lines, adding a high voltage DC backbone, upgrading sub-stations and switches to be able to rapidly respond to changing conditions, replacing current meters with networked smart meters,  and so forth. Appliance makers and manufacturers of home control systems will build units that can be tied into the grid through either pricing or control signals delivered down to smart meters enabling these electric powered devices and control units for households to control appliances more intelligently.  A whole new software sector needs to be invented to build all the control, monitoring and networking sub-systems as well as the smart appliances and home control units.

The smart grid also represents a profoundly new way of doing business for the electric utilities. It will be a radical departure from the current vertically integrated business models and conservative way of doing things towards a much more agile, decentralized and distributed type of business in which the utilities become true network operators with many connected supplier, storage and consumer nodes all interacting in a vast, horizontally integrated, self-healing, robustly and redundant manner. And building it will take a large workforce of skilled tradesmen, factory workers and professionals. Nobody is quite certain what its shape will finally turn out to be, what the business of running it will look like, who the players will be or what technologies it will rely on, but some form of a smart grid is going to be built and building it is going to be very big business indeed.

© 2009, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Chris de Morsella (146 Articles)

After a decade performing as a lead guitarist for rock bands, Chris de Morsella decided to return to the career his uncle mentored him in as a youth....Software Engineering. Since that time he has thrown himself into his work. He has designed a compound document publishing architecture for regulatory submissions capable of handling very large multi-document FDA regulatory drug approval submissions, for Liquent, a division of Thompson Publishing. At the Associated Press, Chris worked with senior editors at facilities around the world, to develop a solution for replacing existing editorial systems with an integrated international content management solution. He lead the design effort at Microsoft for a help system for mobile devices designed to provide contextual help for users. Chris also helped to develop the web assisted installer for LifeCam2.0, the software for Microsoft’s web cam and developed late breaking features for the product He also served with the Rhapsody client team to redesign and build a major new release of Real Networks Rhapsody client product. His most recent assignment has been Working with the Outlook Mobile Time Management team for the next release of Outlook Mobile for the SmartPhone. Chris' interests are in green building and architecture, smart grid, the cloud, geo-thermal energy, solar energy, smart growth, organic farming and permaculture. Follow Chris on Twitter.