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September 09, 2009

Smart Grid Energy Efficiency and Sustainability: Part 2



Just to recap from my last article, the point I made was that, looking beyond the hype, the Smart Grid of today is really about AMI networks and a somewhat automated peak Demand Response system. I also mentioned that these two, by themselves, are really not bad ideas at all.
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On the contrary, upgrading meters so they can be remotely monitored and managed will certainly lead to better consumer service and cheaper operational costs for utilities. Also, dealing with the problem of peak demand is very necessary given our old and limited North American infrastructure and rising demand.
 
But let’s not kid ourselves that these two elements of the Smart Grid will help with the fundamental energy problem facing us or result in cheaper rates for consumers. The truth is the expenses associated with deploying both AMI and DR will be translated to rate increases so consumers won’t see their bills come down for a long time to come.
 
Although the incentives of “negawatts” are certainly more attractive to the alternative of building more peaking generators, the fact is that these two aren’t the only exclusive alternatives. Today’s Smart Grid can be so much more and I will summarize what it should really be about at the end of this article. But now, as mentioned in my last article let’s discuss why the information & communications technology industry (ICT) is the only industry that can use something as simple as price signaling over AMI to truly enable sustained “cheaper and cleaner” power.
 
It’s a fact that the geographic location of most network based information services is irrelevant; most of us use websites whose servers are located in other continents on a daily basis. This also extends to the servicing and operations of ICT; as an example, unlike factories and retail stores, you can manage the majority of data-centers day to day operations remotely. Fundamentally, you can move and copy data across global information networks in milliseconds.
 
So, given these facts, for example, an internet based service provider can collocate servers in geographic areas where power is served by independent generation sources. The provider could then replicate services and synchronize state among these various distributed servers or data-centers. With the addition of an energy control system which, monitors the near-time energy price signaling for the various centers, would control data routing so that clones with the cheapest electricity rates had the highest priority and at the same time signal the servers whose energy cost is high to reduce their processor speed. In effect, the ISP has created a system for highly efficient power consumption without reducing demand.
 
The unique ability of least cost energy routing in the ICT industry is due to the very nature of information and software itself so this model can be extended past this specific example of data-centers and servers to virtually all elements of the ICT industry; for example, a set of novel least cost energy routing methods have been implemented by students as part of a research project at MIT (News - Alert) which calculates the energy cost of the possible routes through a data network.
 
Unlike software, it won’t be any time soon that we can teleport a house or a factory 2000 miles to use a cheaper energy source, but, the whole reason I wanted to showcase how the ICT industry can bypass a bunch of monopolies is that almost everything you can do with information, you can do with power. The duality of energy and information also means that information and power are equivalent in most contexts. Expanding on this an Internet for Energy or a two way, highly distributed grid which allows energy routing to virtually any destination, should be the ultimate goal. Most industry leaders agree with this long term vision.
 
They also claim that AMI and DR are just the first elements of the Grid to be tackled because they are “low hanging fruit” and the easiest to implement. I personally think another contributing reason why almost all the focus is currently on AMI and DR is that they are the only facets of a Smart Grid with clear and significant financial benefits to utilities while some of the other elements which although might be more important in realizing the “energy internet” and with greater immediate benefit have much less clear financial benefits for utilities and, in some cases, can result in lower revenue and enable increased competition.
 
To give a concrete example of one of these facets, consider what I’ll call “Smart Transformers”. There are millions of transformers in North America as part of the distribution network and, as far as I know, none of them have any intelligence or communications capabilities or to generalize the concept of AMI, are parts of an ASI network (advanced sensor infrastructure). Enabling the remote monitoring, management and analysis of transformer performance can potentially be orders of magnitude more important than AMI networks.
 
To keep it very simple, by giving transformers some smarts, even if it’s just enough to analyze voltage discrepancies, utilities would need to provide less power to consumers while still satisfying their current demands, in other words it would increase Grid efficiency dramatically. This is clearly a big win for consumers, the environment and society and unfortunately would amount to a loss for utilities.
 
This same energy efficiency can be applied to virtually any element of the distribution network that is given “intelligence”. Something to note is that current legacy transformers are really in much worst shape than dumb meters and most have been in the field much longer. In fact, most are due for replacement in this coming decade so this particular example is really “low hanging fruit”.
 
Going back to the concept of curbing consumer demand, something all of us have to acknowledge is that while there is no way around reducing our energy consumption until some real revolutions in energy production and power storage take place, we can, rather, view reduced consumption through the lens of consistently reducing wasted energy. Giving intelligence to the distribution network is a great way to do this as I discussed above but in the home this is something that is also lacking and isn’t being addressed by current government or industry initiatives. Before we even consider HANs that react to price signals, let’s put sufficient intelligence into every adapter and electric device so they are self-aware of when they are being used for a purpose or just being energy vampires and lets give them self-control to regulate their power consumption.
 
I really would rather pay a few extra dollars for this type of intelligence than DR.
Although the dream of having a flexible Energy Internet where power is routed over a two way highly distributed and autonomous network and where any energy consumer can be a producer is indeed a very high hanging fruit, I hope I’ve made the case that there are low hanging fruits beyond AMI and DR that will move us closer to this goal and, in themselves, really translate to cheaper and cleaner energy for consumers in the same time frame as DR. Most of it starts with moving the focus of intelligence from reducing consumers peak demand to intelligence in consistently reducing waste on the Grid. 

Shidan Gouran is co-founder of Intelligent Communications Partners (ICP), a strategic advisory consultancy focused on the emerging Smart Grid opportunity. To read more of his Smart Grid articles, please visit his columnist page.
 
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