The Value of Smart Grid Technology

By: Edward Kobeszka, Survalent Technology

Smart Grid technology is changing the way that we monitor, deliver and use electricity as well as influencing the way that we think about it. With more electric utilities deploying smart grid tools, other agencies and utilities are beginning to see the benefits of smart grid technology for improving services such as in the water and gas industries.

What Is Smart Grid?

Smart Grid is a real revolution in the marriage between technology and utilities. Electrical grids have been around since 1886 and as time passed, they grew in size. Eventually, they began helping whole geographical regions to distribute power appropriately while preserving the overall health of the miles of lines and cables making up each grid. Massive power outages and brownouts in recent history demonstrate what happens when weaknesses undermine such grids. Smart Grid technology promises to turn such outages into mere memories by utilizing large quantities of information at high speed and to utilize automated procedures to restore and stabilize the networks.

Smart grids use both digital and analog information gathered from a number of sources such as intelligent electronic devices, advanced metering, sensors etc. to distribute energy more efficiently. In the past, the great struggle for grid operators has been to channel electricity to where it was needed without distributing too much or too little. Sending too much energy risked damage to the grid as well as wastage of unused energy. Too little distributed resulted in blackouts and brownouts that were dissatisfying to consumers. A smart grid utilizes modern information technology to automate these functions.

The Importance of Smart Grid Today

Smart Grid is a response to the growth in importance of information in the modern economy. Information was always key in electrical grids but the revolution behind Smart Grid is the immense quantity of information utilized and the real-time application of changes. Relying more on human understanding of problems, technology used in past grids tended to force people to react to problems when they were already bordering on the unmanageable.

Technology growth in the utility industry has made huge advances in many ways in the last few decades. Although many power producing nations still rely on Coal, Oil and Natural Gas for base generation, renewables such and wind and solar including the growth of micro grids are becoming more and more popular with electric utilities. The Smart Grid allows utilities to adapt their sources of fuel and their facilities to make them much more efficient. This improved efficiency will allow them to continue distributing power reliably and cost effectively for much longer than was previously imagined.

Top 3 Application Areas for Utilities
Source: 2014 Zpryme/MSGS Survey of 91 Municipal Utilities Conducted in May/June of 2014

Superior Features of a Smart Grid

Reliability - An aging infrastructure requires an enormous amounts of manual hands-on maintenance that is costly and  time consuming as these aging grids are replaced, technologies incorporated into the Smart Grid will allow networks to self-heal. This will enable grids to overcome more than just technical issues and minor damage. It will even reduce their vulnerability during disasters.

Load Adjustment - Even people who are not involved in the energy industry are becoming more familiar with the concept of energy loads and their impacts on the usefulness of electrical grids. These loads can change almost instantaneously today as consumers make energy choices such as enhancing ones comfort level, or charging the electric car. The Smart Grid can react much more quickly to these changes and reduce their impacts by slightly modulating load levels in individual devices. This ability allows the grid to keep functioning without noticeably disturbing users.

Peak Leveling - Those who have used electricity in an industrialized country are aware of peak leveling. This term describes the motivational policy used by utilities to get consumers to cut back their usage during typically high-demand periods. This policy will become even more efficient with Smart Grids, which can communicate directly with devices and meter usage accordingly.

Sustainability - The flexibility already described is a critical component of all plans to begin including renewable energy sources on these grids. Since these sources can undergo sizable fluctuations due to weather patterns, a smart grid must be in place to adapt to these changes without causing outages.

Where Smart Grid Technology Is in Use Today

There are a variety of Smart Grid devices utilized by many utilities today. Among them are the operations applications that monitor and control those devices such as:

Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) - This system uses coded signals to monitor and control remote devices. The main focus of SCADA is to supervise, collect and analyze data, protect and control networks. .

Outage Management System (OMS) - Advanced applications utilizing Smart Grid devices and enterprise applications can assist operators in restoring power after unavoidable outages. Automation allows them to predict the location of failed fuses, provide accurate and timely information about such failures and even calculate time needed to restore power.

Distribution Management System (DMS) - Automation of distribution networks for load analysis and real time fault detection including controlled or automated restoration and switching or load shifting of feeders and circuits is accomplished by utilizing advanced distribution management applications This system when combined with SCADA and OMS form a very tight real time operations system or ADMS that begins to define the usefulness and advances of the Smart Grid and maximizes its benefits.

Most Important Technologies in Distribution Automation Source: 2014 Zpryme/MSGS Survey of 91 Municipal Utilities Conducted in May/June of 2014

The Future of Smart Grid

There has been a lot of talk about Smart Grid technology replacing the age old electric utilities. Actually, what is much more likely and considerably more beneficial to the public as well as the utilities, is the integration of Smart Grid technology into modern life and into modern industry. Utilities will become more efficient and less burdened O&M costs and an aging workforce. The paradigm of the regulated utility is challenged. However, the benefit of this challenge will almost certainly be more innovation that will create more business opportunities and a higher standard of living.

As mentioned earlier, Smart Grid Technology is even being recognized for its potential benefits as it pertains to gas and water.  As these resources become more stressed, smart water and gas grids can increase reliability and more accurately control the use of these diminishing resources

Smart Grid technology is revealing a much brighter future. Instead of preparing aging electrical grids for a harsh transition from non-renewable to renewable sources of energy, Smart Grid can sustain a seamless energy evolution. The result will be the basis for continued economic growth in the coming years.