Intelligent Power Transmission

by Dave


Wind turbines and solar panels may be the sexy, new stars of a clean energy future, but they’ll be nothing but a side note unless the grid that powers them gets a much-needed makeover.

While it’s widely noted that a new, national “smart grid” is a fundamental step in the spread of clean, renewable energy projects, there’s little chatter about building the grid itself. Why? Well, as Worldchanging founder Alex Steffen notes: infrastructure is boring. He has a point, but we better start talking.

Last month I listened to a panel of energy experts explain to the New York City Council’s Infrastructure Task Force that Gotham’s grid simply couldn’t handle a proposed new supply of electricity flowing in from rooftop solar and offshore wind. Why? Because our current grid is dumb and wildly inefficient.

A blind system of transmission lines and converters, today’s grid funnels electricity one-way—from big centralized power plants to our factories, streetlights, shops, and homes. The utilities can’t detect fluctuations in energy demand; so, to ensure there are no shortages, the power plants run at full tilt, burning greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels around the clock. Not to mention, there is a lot of juice lost from coal-fired plant to the socket–5 to 10 percent due to “line loss” in the transmission wires alone. It’s also dreadfully vulnerable to disruptions, whether a break in the system—like a heavy branch taking down a roadside line—or an influx of power from an unexpected source. That’s bad news anyone who wants to plug his solar panels and sell electricity back to the grid.

[A] smart grid would be networks, microprocessors and digital sensing technologies, a “web” of clever, hi-tech components that will be as flexible as it is intelligent. (The Wall Street Journal recently drew up a handy interactive model of such a system.) Supercomputers will let the utilities predict and manage system-wide demand and capacity, with batteries and other storage mechanisms ensuring that there’s always enough power to handle consumers’ needs. Power from distributed carbon-free sources such as rooftop solar, wind turbines, and combined heat and power systems will feed into the grid without causing breakdowns, so customers will be able to buy electricity for their homes and businesses, as well as sell power they generate back. “Smart meters” in buildings and homes will show the real-time cost of energy and assure that those that energy contributed to the grid receive payment. These distributed energy sources will require power to travel less distance, eliminating some electricity waste or “line loss.” Finally, internal building controls will adjust power demand, and new substations will take feedback from sensors along the transmission lines to better route electricity flow.