How Close Are We to a Smart Grid?12 Feb 2021
The power pulsing into your home right now probably comes courtesy of an antiquated system of power plants and transmission lines thought up while horse and buggies were still common on the streets. Even with the advent of the Internet age, we largely still use this one-way power network, and rely on aging infrastructure to keep our lights on. Surely the time has come for a big switch.
Modernizing the grid will be a significant undertaking. It will require incorporating digital technology for greater resilience and dynamism. In the U.S., the grid refers to the electric grid, a transmission and distribution network that facilitates the delivery of electricity from a power plants to homes and businesses. The grid itself consists of millions of power lines, some carrying high voltage and some with lower voltage, some running for hundreds of miles, and some just from the street to a home.
The U.S. grid currently exists in three complex interconnected systems: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. A friend in California and one in Maine have very different grids than the other. But that does not stop most people from referencing the entire U.S. electrical infrastructure as the grid.
While it has facilitated amazing growth and opportunity over the decades, America’s electrical infrastructure has aged considerably since it was built up. It may soon be unable to support the increased electrical demands of our growing and dynamic population, not to mention the shifting environmental and climate focus of the future. The solution, and natural successor to the traditional grid, is a smart grid.
Smart grids allow for two-way communication technologies, control systems, and computer processing to compute and communicate information between and among homes, businesses, power plants, and the infrastructure in between. These technologies possess advanced sensors called Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs). PMUs are high-speed sensors that measure power system voltage quickly and accurately. PMUs allow operators to determine grid stability, support digital meters that inform consumers and automatically report power outages, maintain automated feeder switches that reroute power in response to identified problems, and incorporate batteries that store excess energy and that can later be made available in response to consumer demand.
In short, while the traditional grid can monitor how much demand exists and send out the right amount of energy, a smart grid could allow power to be rerouted more efficiently, travel around downed infrastructure, or facilitate excess power storage and domestic solar panels putting excess power back into the grid.
One of the major pitfalls of the traditional grid system is that an electrical disruption, such as a blackout, can have a detrimental ripple effect—traffic, communications, and security systems can be upended, especially in the winter. Due to its two-way interactive capacity, a smart grid system has the ability to withstand emergencies that would beleaguer the traditional system, such as severe storms, earthquakes, and national security attacks. When outages occur, smart grid technologies identify and isolate them to prevent widespread blackouts. Smart grids also allow for the utilization of consumer-owned generators to produce power in times of emergency. For instance, through the combination of local generation sources, a community could collectively power health centers and traffic lights in times of persistent community-wide outages.
The implications extend beyond simply a more efficient grid, they include cybersecurity and national security, physical and climate resilience, and can allow new and innovative technology to graft into the dynamic system. That means that new sources of power generation can be tied into the smart grid more easily and quickly than before, and the grid can constantly talk to the infrastructure around it to spread renewably-generated energy in efficient ways.
Smart grids are also ideal from a consumer perspective due to their open and interactive nature. Mechanisms known as ‘smart meters’ allow a consumer to monitor their energy usage and its cost. This dual reporting allows consumers to adjust their energy usage when prices are high. Additionally, smart grid technologies are compatible with renewable energy delivery systems such as solar, wind, and geothermal power. Implementation of residential renewable energy projects, such as rooftop solar panels, in tandem with the expansion of smart grid technology, is a positive indicator of accessible green energy generation and distribution.
So if we know the solution and we have the technology, what is the hold up? How close are we to replacing our existing electrical infrastructure with a smart grid?
The first answer is that we are close, but it will be expensive and take considerable collaboration. It will not be a sudden shift from what we have to a new system, but rather a slow change out of technologies and improvements made alongside and to the existing grid.
In 2011, there were as many as 90 pilot programs testing smart grid features worldwide. Over 500 projects were implemented across Europe in the last decade. And today, in the U.S. pilots are continually run in new locations to build better data and test functionality for an eventual broad deployment across the nation.
Currently, smart grid projects are being considered in areas without consistent Internet connection, both domestically and abroad. In Virginia, the state’s premier utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, are in the process of developing smart grid pilot projects in partnership with local Internet providers. Through the installation of fiber cables in rural areas impacted by the pandemic, consumer costs decrease while broadband connection improves. This could effectively accomplish two goals at once and launch a community into the 21st Century.
However, while there are noted benefits associated with this project, such as improved security, increased response time to power irregularities, and the introduction of high-speed internet in rural areas, this project is still a substantial undertaking and has been met with hesitance from regulators. This particular $29 million project proposal is expected to approved or denied on February 16th—a decision that will likely influence the development of similar smart grid projects across the U.S.
The next step for grid modernization is the establishment of public-private partnerships that focus on the development and expansion of smart grids across the country. As new pilot programs begin and wrap up, the technology will remain in place, and over time, begin to prove the concept for other local and state actors. It is expected to take at least a decade for smart grid technologies to be implemented broadly, as the complex system needs to be installed piece by piece. However, as President Biden’s policy record indicates, smart grids may play a large role in the new administration’s energy agenda and in American lives for decades to come.
Written by Blair Hassett, Public Policy Intern
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.