How smart is the grid?
By Melissa Chan
In the last 15 years, computing, data storage and network costs have fallen at an unprecedented rate. Everyday life now has a digital component, especially the electric utility industry, which is the backbone for enabling digital technology in homes and across the economy. Advanced sensors such as synchrophasors measure electricity flows and quality across the transmission grid multiple times a minute, sending data back to centralized control rooms where artificial intelligence (AI) crunches through this data in near real-time to predict potential outages and reconfigure the grid network to avoid widespread outages. This is just one example of grid resilience and reliability achieved through the coordination of advanced assets and intelligence for grid sensing, information management, communications, control and coordination.
Across the world, smart grid assets work behind the scenes to reduce outages, reduce utility response times to outages and defer capital investments by optimizing asset operations. Data and analytics make it possible to avoid failures to optimize operations, monitor equipment health to schedule preventive maintenance and manage interconnections to reduce capacity constraints. These improved operational and maintenance practices prolong the life of assets, reducing costs over time.
At the customer-level, smart grids can empower consumers to participate in electricity markets through demand response, electric vehicle (EV) charging and self-produced distribution generation and storage. Smart meters measure consumers’ electricity usage in near real-time, providing the data needed to measure real-time demand flexibility that averts a critical system peak, and eliminates the need to turn on a natural gas peaking plant. The savings from avoided operations of the natural gas peaking plant can be distributed to consumers based on their measured real-time response to the need for flexibility. In the long run, this flexibility reduces the need for new capital investments for electricity generation, saving money for utilities and their customers.
The electricity system is smart and getting smarter. Smart grid assets are not yet ubiquitous around the world because some regions are still developing basic electricity distribution networks. However, the experience and lessons learned from mature deployments of smart grid equipment can be shared to improve the efficiency and efficacy of their application elsewhere. Moreover, they can make the most of the latest advances in smart grid innovation, which adopts technology innovations from other sectors. Cloud computing enables storage of enormous amounts of data. Faster networking speeds and advances in solid-state hardware computing enables analytics at the system’s edge, termed “grid edge computing,” rather than requiring the delay of transmitting data to a centralized network operating center to analyze situation and dispatch a command. Smart grid modeling and analytics draw from business intelligence, AI and machine learning algorithms that quickly slice data to draw fine-tuned insight for controls that will support an autonomously operating grid. Computing standards, data standards and cybersecurity protocols developed for cryptography and financial applications are readily adapted to protect smart grid systems. As a result, the grid is becoming more resilient and adaptive, able to protect itself and prevent outages due to overcapacity, or cyber-attack.
As electricity utilities deploy more smart grid assets, consumers will be able to count on a digitized electricity delivery system that supports the ready incorporation of emerging technologies. Connected homes, EVs, solar and energy storage are novel today but will be more widely adopted over time. Electric grid operators around the world are stepping up to support these new technologies with low cost, reliable and resilient electricity enabled by smart grids.
Figure 1 Above: Links in the smart grid system. Source: Portland General Electric/CC BY-ND 2.0