Who has not heard of smart grids? The term is increasingly common in discussions about the present and future of the electrical grid. But, what is a smart grid? Some people equate smart grids with smart meters that measure and inform the user in real time about energy consumption and its cost. Others see smart grids as the control of distributed generators connected to homes or to medium voltage networks. Finally, some believe that smart grids focus mainly on managing demand devices (e.g. turning on and turning off air conditioners) to reduce peak demand.
So, what is a smart grid?
The answer is “all of the above” and much, much more. A smart grid has the ability to optimize, in real time, the use of all the resources of the grid. Here the key is to “optimize everything” in real time: (i) generators connected at the distribution level, (ii) demand, (iii) and even the same network, which is transformed from a “passive” entity (where generators inject energy, the network transmits it, and the users consume it) to an “active” entity where each device is capable of acting on the system conditions to have a global optimum of generation and consumption. In the not too distant future, we could add energy storage to this equation, e.g. in electric cars, which function as a dispersed battery that can store and deliver energy depending on the network’s requirements.
Smart grids are based on three fundamental aspects: information, intelligence, and action. The more information that is known about the current state of the grid (for example, consumption at each point, the load in each of the conductors, the state of each generator, outside temperature, insolation level, etc.), the greater the possible actions. Second by second, the network can make decisions and generate actions: should demand be reduced? Is there a failure and should the network automatically be reconfigured to isolate it? Are the solar generators injecting too much energy, and is there the potential to store it? All these decisions are made by control devices, usually distributed, but coordinated, and in real time. Information and communication technologies facilitate this process.
What is the importance of smart grids for our countries?
On one hand, many of the distribution networks in Latin America and the Caribbean are reaching the end their useful life and will require replacement. On the other hand, millions of people in our region are still without access to electricity, and extension of the grid will be, in some cases, the optimal way to provide this access. Since these investments must be made in the coming years, inevitably, there is a chance to take a step further and install smart grids.
Smart grid management could benefit users in our region in at least three ways:
- Increased efficiency: The main concept of a smart grid is efficiency – the optimal use of resources. Depending on its configuration, a smart grid allows the reduction of losses in distribution networks, or even the reduction of peak demand, permitting a better use of network assets, and postponing investments. Efficiency can reduce supply costs.
- Reducing emissions. Another fundamental aspect of intelligent networks is the ability to connect renewable generation beyond the limits of passive networks. In a passive network, the levels of generation injection are limited by the design of the network, which considers the “worst case scenario” of demand. In these networks, the boundaries are static. In an active network, the limits are adjusted in real time for each network condition – they are dynamic limits. As a result, it is possible to have more renewable generation in distribution networks, thereby reducing the generation and the emissions in large fossil fuelled power plants.
- Increased Reliability: Smart grids have the ability to change their configuration in response to failures or conditions in different parts of the network. For example, it is possible to isolate a failed area in the network, preventing widespread blackouts. Also, a smart grid has the ability to auto supply when you have generators and storage devices available, which also enables the network to isolate itself from the rest of the system in case of a power outage. As a result, the reliability and security of supply increases.
In short, the technology required for the implementation of smart grids is already available, and it is easily accessible. Although there are some experiences in the region, particularly with smart meters, mass implementation has yet to be seen, particularly due to the lack of dissemination of information and the lack of incentives for innovation in companies in the sector. While this post covers just the basics —there is actually a great deal more information on smart grids that we could talk about (in future posts)— what is truly important to keep in mind is that the future of the grid is, now more than ever, in our hands.