Power outlet to the power plant: Smart Power Grids

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!

Fun fact: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is home to one of the world’s first alternating current power grids.

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.

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?

Blockchain

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.

At Home

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.

6 comments

  1. abigailholler1 · ·

    This is a very informative post, I didn’t quite know the benefits of smart grids on the structural relationship of producers and consumers. Personally as a condo owner, I think some of these technologies would be a gamechanger for the operations of our condo building. The building is pretty old, and we have mostly centralized systems, which makes it really difficult to know how much power or water each individual unit is using. I bet there are some adaptations of smart meters specifically made for multiple unit condo buildings that would help to make our building’s utility usage more efficient and transparent. Additionally, a couple months back one unit in our building had leaky plumbing, which led to a super high water bill for the month – smart alerts would be hugely helpful for our condo in this area as well…maybe something I’ll look into before our next condo meeting!

  2. conoreiremba · ·

    Once again a fantastic post Mr Riley, and thanks for bringing something to light that I would probably have never explored further otherwise, and it also nicely ties in a lot of the concepts we have learned this semester. The idea of smart meters seems like a no-brainer. I remember when I was a kid, a man who later became affectionately known as “the meter man” would come to our back door, and sometimes without even knocking, come in and check the meter, and carry on to the next house. Two weeks later the electricity bill would come in the mail. Still seems nuts and the solution you’ve nicely pointed out certainly would reduce a lot of friction points. Really interesting insight on the use of blockchain and neural networks also and going forward it is very reasonable to see how they could play a big role in better identifying the exact source and reason for breakages in the link and power outages in order to respond faster, but also in predicting parts of the grid that could be more prone to issues. Really insightful and thanks for sharing!

  3. sayoyamusa · ·

    Insightful post, Shane! I’ve heard of smart grids but never grasped the basic concept or benefits. You are very good at explaining technical concepts in a simple and easy-to-understand way! Now I learn why smart girds can promote renewable energy and it is such an eco-friendly technology that I’m convinced it will be more and more prevailed. Smart meters at home also sound so cool and I’ve found this is a great reminder that technology brings decentralization, giving more power (literally and metaphorically…) to individuals. Although I need to check exactly how to join smart grids in my community and switch my electrical power to two-way management, I’d love to save my spending and the planet. Thanks for sharing it!

  4. williammooremba · ·

    Great blog post. One thing you touched on was advancements of battery technology for green energy storage. One area of the power grid that I have found particularly interesting is advancements and techniques to utilize energy storage. For instance, in addition to chemical batteries there is pumped hydro electric storage which pumps water from a low to high reservoir when there is excess electrical production capacity. When electricity is needed the water is simply released though a turbine generating power. There is also a similar concept using compressed air to store energy with the air being heated and expanded in a natural gas turbine to generate electricity when needed. As technology advances it will be interesting to see how efficient long term energy storage can complement all the other smart grid advances in the blog post.

    US Department of Energy Storage Page: https://www.energy.gov/oe/energy-storage

    U.S. Grid Energy Storage Factsheet Center for Sustainable Systems University of Michigan: http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/us-grid-energy-storage-factsheet#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20the%20U.S.%20had,of%20total%20installed%20generation%20capacity.&text=Globally%2C%20installed%20energy%20storage%20capacity%20totaled%20173.6%20GW.&text=1%2C355%20energy%20storage%20projects%20were,with%2011%20projects%20under%20construction.

  5. changliu0601 · ·

    Really informative post!!! The first time that i knew electric grid is by a news said that there is a increase in hackers targeting electric grid.Conor’s the meter man is impressive.In China, the meter man always knocked me up in early morning.

  6. courtneymba · ·

    Awesome post! I love your image on the “yesterday” and “tomorrow” differences. It’s interesting how a key aspect to scaling alternative energy sources is not just the grids but also usability of batteries. One thing I’m a little confused on is are there still human meter readers today? Or did that end in the 2000s? Either mine is a sneaky little thing that no one has ever seen, or Newton must be reading remotely.

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