How has my electrical outlet changed since 1886?
We have discussed many technologies, social trends, and business transformation processes through a digital transformation lens throughout this class. One of a few commonalities linking each of these topics is the need for power, and most commonly, in our case, electrical power. With all the thought and rigor that has gone into exploring and discussing many of these digital transformation advancements, it should dumfound most that the world, in general, theoretically relies on the same electrical power distribution network found in the world’s first electrical distribution network in 1886!
What does this mean?
In summation, we designed power grids around large centrally generation stations like carbon-powered power plants (coal, oil, natural gas). Hydroelectric power plants and nuclear power stations are centrally located near adequate water supplies used for power and cooling. Power plants produce power and sent it into what is referred to as the power grid: an interconnection between producers and consumers spanning across localities, states, and, in our case, region/nation. Producers relied on economies of scale to supply the grid, and consumers (much like right now) pay on a per-use basis. In the later part of the 20th century, as technologies surrounding power generation, distribution, and demand evolved, efficiencies could be gained, and disparities could be addressed within the distribution network. In short, it was time to transform the grid digitally; it was time for smart grids.
The easiest way to think of smart grid tech is to think of the last two paragraphs or the current power grid as a primarily one-way street. Now, take the current grid and view it from two sides split at the electrical meter found in your home/apartment. One side is consumer-controlled, and one side is electrical producer-controlled. Smart grids utilize various forms of interconnected metering, connecting, distributing, and renewable generating techniques to benefit producers, consumers, and the planet. Smart grids transform our precious power grids into two-way streets. Traditional power grids are built around centralized large power plants producing electricity at a commercial scale (megawatts). The grid is designed to be fed by large producers that can produce thousands and thousands of megawatts of electricity that are then moved across areas over high voltage distribution lines. Current grids work at scale for large energy producers and consumers and are often not well equipped to support minor power (by capacity) producers like solar, wind, and geothermal. These latter forms of generating electricity often rely on natural forces (sun, wind) for generation and thus have peaks and troughs in their capacity. Battery storage technology advancements have enabled many of these renewable means to achieve greater utility levels by storing energy in battery banks for future use. Ample battery storage now allows the ability for power distribution companies to market renewable energy at scale effectively. Smart decentralized grids allow consumers to participate and become what Ericsson refers to as ‘procumers.’
“We are now moving into a situation with many distributed ‘procumers’ (both consumers and producers of electricity). “(1)
So what other cool effects/contributions have digitization and digital transformation had on power grids?
A significant concern power grid operators and regulators have with the power grid’s two-way nature is its reliability and traceability. A significant benefit of, say, nuclear or fossil power is its imminence ability to make large amounts of power consistently. While the power generated by fossil fuels and nuclear fission might not be ‘clean’ in the environmental sense, the consistency of availability allows it to provide reliable, clean power (clean meaning consistent voltage and frequency). Is it not tracking? What happens when the sun goes down at a solar energy facility? What if the wind does not blow at a wind farm? Simple: No generation. Direct connection of these types of produces can place power grids at risk of not making enough at the right time = brownout or blackout. Battey storage banks, as noted before, are a great DX option that builds in feasibility. By leveraging blockchain and distributed ledger technologies, consumers and traders can track their power supplies or establish tamper-proof means of clean trading energy. Many blockchain use cases surrounding smart grid tech dive deeper into the world of energy finance and trading (simply google blockchain ppa). At the most basic level, blockchain and DLT’s provide transparency and efficiency via verifiable transactions for both producers and consumers.
Smart meters. Most homes built into the early 2000s had mechanical meters that measured the watts (power) a residence or building would consume. Each month a utility worker would check the meter in order to generate a bill. Smart meters accomplish this process and then some. Their ability to track other relevant data about consumption in real-time allows an end to estimated bills. There are other benefits to smart meters as it pertains to power generation and distribution that are a bit more complex. Concerns are surrounding smart meters due to the wireless means of connectivity to providers that could leave them open to cybersecurity issues and concerns surrounding the privacy breaches due to the real-time granularity of consumption they can provide.
Automation and Intelligent Modeling
Technology like digital twins and neural networks help unlock operation efficiencies that service providers would never have achieved simply through human-operated power-control stations. Neural networks can forecast demand and map interconnections and power phasing for renewable energy sources. Neural networks have been entirely helpful in forecasting the output of solar and wind farms by taking a multitude of variables into account. Many of these advancements have transformed fossil reliant power grids into cleaner, more efficient producers and renewable energy producers into more reliable and feasible supplies to the power grid
Personally, as a once engineer, I am fascinated by all that surrounds smart grids. I am keen to see how consumer demand for clean, renewable energy helps shape space. With most modern technology that involves ever-growing connectivity levels via IoT there will inevitably be concerns about privacy and cyber vulnerability. However, in our precious power grid, I hope that the need to be environmental stewards and the necessity to lower our impact on the planet will outweigh some of the troughs of disillusionment surrounding the smart grid digital transformation.