Analog Electronics Renewable Energy

What the heck is a Smart Grid? (Part 1)

First off, a smart grid does not yet exist. It’s not exactly dumb, but it’s unwieldy and needs some help getting itself under control.

So let’s think of the electricity grid as an elephant.

It’s big, it’s powerful and it takes a ton of work to get it moving in one direction or another. It’s also really expensive to get it from one place to another. If you want to move an elephant over a distance of hundreds of miles, it’s going to want some peanuts, after all.

A Smart Grid in this analogy is the trainer that controls the elephant.  The consumer is a person off in the distance, holding a peanut. And elephants love peanuts, so they will naturally go where they are. The trainer might be able to guide the elephant towards the people willing to pay the most peanuts. The trainer might also be able to tell the consumer to save their peanuts because getting the elephant at certain times of days will be expensive. And for the health of the elephant, he can say “enough is enough” and start to scale back how many peanuts the elephant is really allowed to eat that day. In the end though, the trainer is only guiding the elephant. The things that truly are controlling the elephant are how much energy he has and how many peanuts people are willing to offer him.

So how does an elephant relate back to the actual power grid? Well, think of a typical coal power plant. The coal is used to heat water, the water turns to steam, the steam turns a turbine and then the water is cooled and recycled to be used for another cycle. The AC power is distributed to transformers that step up the voltage of the signal to thousands of volts before the power is pushed through transmission lines. When you flip a switch in your house, you allow current to flow into whatever device is “requesting” power, thereby utilizing some small portion of the total energy on the grid. Now, if there were 10,000 people trying to turn on their clothes dryers simultaneously, the system will likely not be able to keep up. More power stations could come online, but the instantaneous need would instead likely cause blackouts and brownouts to occur, leaving customers without power. So what they do is try to curb everyone turning on their clothes dryer at the same point every day by charging a lot of money for using the power then. They say, “Why not run the dryer at night? We’ll make it worth your while!”. The Smart Grid/Trainer is there to try and balance the needs of the consumer and the ability of the power generators. It will hopefully save people money and allow power generation facilities to avoid turning to readily available energy (coal, natural gas) to fulfill the demand.

A smart grid has a potential to bring a lot of engineering jobs, especially in waning job markets such as the US. I plan to write more about the Smart Grid because I truly believe it will bring some innovation and employment to whoever jumps on the technology first. There are a lot of pieces to the eventual solution–some more interesting than other–but all deserve analysis and consideration in determining what will result in the most efficient eventual system.

Do you know much about the Smart Grid? Have you experienced any development or funding activities for it yet? Please let us all know in the comments!

Thanks to exfordy for the photo