Try to think of an electronic device that hasn’t changed in the past 100 years or so. It’s hard, isn’t it? Most of the things we use every day — cars, computers, phones, TV’s, etc. — have advanced leaps and bounds. Even kitchen appliances, which do pretty simple tasks relatively quickly, have morphed into fancy toasters that can make toast and cook eggs simultaneously and newfangled microwaves with far too many buttons. Even the source of our electricity is evolving into something more advanced and sustainable. Amidst all of this progress, however, the electrical grid — the very backbone of our electrically powered lifestyles — has barely changed.
That is, until now. The vision of our future is filled with renewable energy, and funneling that clean energy through an inefficient, antiquated electrical grid just doesn’t make sense. That’s why researchers around the country are developing the smart grid.
With the current one-way grid, electricity flows from power plants to consumers nonstop like plumbing with no valves. You can cut off the flow to personal devices by unplugging them from outlets, but the electricity keeps flowing to your house even if you don’t need because the grid has no storage system.
The smart grid, on the other hand, is revolutionary in its ability to a) transfer electricity in multiple directions and b) store energy for convenient access. In place of traditional transformers, the smart grid, known as the “energy internet,” uses semiconductor transformers that can relay digital information in both directions like internet routers. Ewen Pritchard, a researcher at the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) Systems Center at N.C. State University, explains the analogy:
“The smart gird is like the internet in the sense that we moved from large, centralized mainframe computers to small, distributed computers, and what it took to do that was a lot of communication and infrastructure. The same thing is true of the power grid where we’re moving from a large, centralized generation to smaller generation with solar cells and wind turbines.”
This means that in the future, people will be able to buy a solar panel, hook it up to the grid and pump their own energy into the system. If there’s a downed power line, the smart grid will be able to reroute power to your house instantly through communication with other routers.
With solar and wind power, a common concern is what happens when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. That’s where the storage system comes into play. The model storage device right now is an electric vehicle. If you plug an electrical vehicle into your house, the grid doesn’t see it as a car, but rather as a big storage battery, so your solar panel can funnel energy into it during the day for use later that night.
Director of the FREEDM Systems Center Alex Huang emphasizes the importance of the individual in the smart grid system and the overall future of green energy.
“This will promote green technology in a way we may not be able to predict, it will allow consumers to go out and buy things that generate and store energy, go home and plug them in and start to participate in the exchange of power. This helps both consumers and the utility companies. With these smart transformers, your home will be able to do things other than just consume energy. This will really unlock the power of people, a key ingredient for innovation.”
When I first learned about the smart grid, it was somewhat of a wakeup call. Our attention is focused so much on developing new ways to create energy and new ways to consume it that we don’t really think about how the energy flows from one place to another. The “energy internet” is a really innovative concept that I can see being implemented in the not-so-distant future (Huang says the transformers will be ready in 5 years but large-scale implementation will take a bit longer). One of the great things about it is that you don’t have to be an environmentalist to get behind it. Who wouldn’t want an electrical grid that won’t leave you in the dark during a storm and gives you the freedom of self-sufficiency through personal power generation?
Photo: einarfour, Flickr, CC