Creating smart power grids

Smarter grids means more renewables, better power management

Smart energy grids are fashionable. The US has allocated $4.5 billion to its smart energy grid programs, while closer to home, this week’s federal budget saw the government allocate $100 million to the development of smart grids.

All of which begs the question: what exactly is a smart grid?

Conventional wisdom holds that a smart grid is the grid’s end-point – the smart meter. But according to Gartner Fellow Kristian Steenstrup, smart meters are only part of the overall infrastructure. “It’s worth remembering that smart meters need to be rolled out as part of state government initiatives,” says Steenstrup. That’s because state governments typically control the transmission grids and networks associated with power deliver.

“There’s still a bit of planning to take place to co-ordinate the roll out of smart meters,” he says. “Remember, however, that smart meters are only part of the grid, not all of the grid.” The other parts of a smart grid are intelligent devices on the network that can provide feedback if the network is overloaded or underloaded.

The traditional power grid is a hub and spoke model, while a smart grid looks more like a geodesic dome, with power generation and control distributed across its various nodes. “Smart grids let the power company work out whether its smarter to switch off some devices, to avoid peak loads,” says Steenstrup.

Smarty grids also make it easier to incorporate renewable energy sources which traditionally haven’t integrated well with legacy power generation strategies. That’s because many renewables – whether they’re wind or water – tend to be “peaky.”

“It’s hard to base an entire network on renewables,” he says. “Smart networks can detect the peaks and troughs and take them into account. They’re also able to detect failure in the network a lot faster than what’s possible now.”

What we will end up with is a much more interactive, customer friendly power grid that’s also more efficient and able to incorporate a wider variety of power sources. “This is good stimulus spending,” says Steenstrup. “This is about building infrastructure for the 21st century.”

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