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August 08, 2012

Smart Grids 'Come to Light' as Solution to Blackouts



Whether we live in a so-called “developed” or an “emerging” nation, when the lights go out, we all revert to the Dark Ages. Recent blackouts in India and parts of the United States are fresh reminders that grid infrastructure revitalization and improvement are truly global challenges.

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How will we meet those challenges? According to market analysts at Rockville, Maryland-based research publisher SBI Energy, responses to grid instability will include smart grid technologies as cost-effective alternatives to additional power plants, or to transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure expansion and retrofits.

Voltage disruptions, blackouts and brownouts are perennial problems because contemporary grid systems remain inherently disjointed. In India, energy demand is outpacing available generation. Transmission line congestion and regional bottlenecks in America’s patchwork grid have been implicated in grid disruptions; some major blackouts have been sourced to the malfunction or loss of one substation or switchyard.

Smart grid strategies, say the analysts, do not address grid instability through system redundancies or improvements to the physical integrity of a legacy grid. Rather, they enable the dynamic deployment of system resources —for example, load shaving, additional generation (power plants, storage) and voltage regulation—and provide added system flexibility through real-time, two-way communications.

A case in point: The loss of a transmission line or the malfunction of a transmission-to-distribution substation could be addressed by a microgrid that effectively isolates or "islands" a distribution network. A microgrid can manage its own generators and consumption loads, independent of an unstable or downed centralized grid. 

"This ability [of microgrids] to improve [the] energy security and reliability [of] the centralized grid has caught the attention of the market," notes SBI Energy analyst Bernie Galing. Galing appraises the market for microgrid projects at 5 percent of the total smart grid sector.

What’s more, via smart meters, individual ratepayers can monitor their real-time electricity usage and current rates. Smart meters also provide utilities with tremendous volumes of data for analytics that can later be used to for programs that incentivize lower electricity usage during peak loads; as well as demand response (DR) programs using two-way communications to directly cut or reduce individual loads in a household, business or factory.

Deployment of smart meters in India has been motivated by a desire to reduce electricity theft, but these smart grid components also form the foundation for the long-term development of DR programs that could prevent blackouts during exceptional peak periods.

In the end, smart grid technologies represent a value proposition. In the United States alone, the cost of service interruptions is estimated to reach $71 billion by 2020 (American Society of Civil Engineers, 2012). The U.S. smart grid market by that year will represent less than 10 percent of that cost and, the analysts believe, an excellent investment over more costly grid infrastructure replacements or expansions.

The SBI Energy report, "World Smart Grid, 2nd Edition," presents an in-depth analysis of the development, applications, products, manufacturers, and trends in the worldwide development of the smart grid. 

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Edited by Rachel Ramsey
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