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Raising the Grid's IQ: A Brief Introduction to Smart Grid

By David Askew, Mouser Electronics

The scope and complexity of a smart grid ecosystem is quite vast. It’s said that the term “smart grid” means different things to different people, and in a sense this may be true. A complete description of the smart grid goes beyond technology, and is perhaps best described in terms of its concepts and goals. Viewed at its highest level, the smart grid can be understood as any and all technologies, standards, and practices that contribute to a more efficient and more reliable power grid.

From its conception the grid was designed to be “dumb”, created for one-way travel: one-way power flow from generating station to consumer and one-way communication from energy meter to utility provider. This kind of system is outdated and increasingly more costly to maintain. The smart grid seeks to overcome these restrictions, attaining greater efficiency and reliability by enabling multi-directional flow of both power and information. In the past this was mostly impossible, and certainly impractical, but it is now achievable with modern technologies like wireless mesh networking, power line communications (PLC), advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), and more.

Smart grid’s two-way flow of information means much greater participation by consumers, or at least the potential for such. Dynamic pricing of energy – a feature made possible by two-way communication – opens the door to what is known as “demand response”. Demand response programs provide consumers with the knowledge and price incentives needed to reduce energy consumption during times of peak demand. Not all depends on the consumer, however; a smart appliance which tracks dynamic pricing of energy (“prices-to-devices”) may be capable of adjusting its behavior or time of operation in a manner that minimizes consumer cost and reduces the demand “spikes” of the grid at large.

Reducing the severity of these spikes, also known as “peak shaving”, is a key strategy for increasing the efficiency and reliability of the power grid and lowering its operating costs. As it stands, a significant amount of expensive infrastructure exists solely to handle this peak demand when it occurs, and avoid major power outages. In fact, 10% of power generation and 25% of distribution infrastructure are used only 5% of the time, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Without significant changes, this statistic will only worsen as peak demand continues to outpace average demand.

In addition to using demand response strategies to stabilize consumer load, a smarter grid also requires an increased responsiveness to it. One method of accomplishing this is with distributed generation and distributed storage. Currently, most electrical energy is produced by relatively few sources, and must be used immediately by consumers or ultimately wasted. This inability to store energy in any sufficient quantity is a major obstacle of integrating a significant amount of renewable and “non-dispatchable” resources into the grid. One solution involves houses or neighborhoods storing energy – by drawing from the grid at off-peak when energy prices are low, or generating via solar power, etc. – and selling it back to the grid at periods of high demand. Interestingly, electric vehicles (EVs) have been offered as viable storage devices for this purpose. The success of this idea, of course, will depend on the future uptake of EVs and a variety of other factors. Regardless, it is apparent that a smarter grid must have the infrastracture in place to support power flow in multiple directions – something the grid is currently ill-equipped for.

Smart grid technology promises a flexible and robust power grid that offers advantages such as distributed storage, dynamic energy pricing, and greater support for renewable energy sources. The roll-out of smart meter devices has been significant and smart grid technology continues to gain momentum with each new innovation. The power grid may have been created "dumb", but Mouser Electronics offers the newest products and tools to help raise its IQ.

David Askew is a technical content specialist for Mouser Electronics, specializing in embedded systems and software. He holds a BSEE from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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